Set It Up
A solid romantic comedy with sharp dialogue, amusing characters, and a few surprises up its sleeve.
The brilliant team at "Bright Wall/Dark Room" have released their Seotember 2015 issue today, entitled, "Teenagers" which includes the following piece by Charles Bramesco on "Superbad." In addition, the issue also features essays "Pretty in Pink," "Heathers," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Empire Records," "Elephant," "Stealing Beauty," "Charlie Bartlett,' and a British television show called "My Mad Fat Diary." Read more excerpts here and you can buy the magazine on your iPhone and iPad here, or sign up for the web-based online version here. The illustration above is by Brianna Ashby.
Bill Hader and co-scriptwriter Seth Rogen appear in the high school comic odyssey "Superbad" as a pair of aloof, fun-lovin’cops who take chronic third-wheeler Fogell (alias: McLovin, played indelibly by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) out for the night of his life in a freewheeling B-plot. Look closely at their costuming and you’ll see that the patches stitched onto their uniforms read “CLARK COUNTY POLICE DEPARTMENT,” in reference to the sprawling Nevada county that contains the greater Las Vegas area. This easily-missed detail constitutes the lone means of determining where, exactly, "Superbad" is supposed to take place. Fogell and soft-spoken niceguy Evan (Michael Cera, attaining some lofty Platonic ideal of Michael Ceraness) plan on shipping off to start their freshman year at Dartmouth College in the fall, and a cokehead at a party mentions that his brother came in all the way from Scottsdale, Arizona. But apart from those fleeting, inconsequential markers, "Superbad" is a film that exists outside of place, unstuck in America, nowhere and everywhere.
Though audiences walking out of "Superbad" may have difficulty pointing out where it takes place on a map, all viewers recognize the setting immediately as The Suburbs, the faceless expanse of middle-class flatland that encircles every major metro area and stretches across the landlocked states for uninterrupted miles. Small-time consumerism defines the face of the town, and the time not spent huddled around glowing TV sets in cool basements or in bedrooms full of stale air is instead squandered at convenience stores or malls. It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting, but without the delusions of genteel small-town values; kids loiter outside the liquor mart, needling strangers to buy them beers, while seniors play hooky during fourth period.
The thematic, capital-S Suburbs also exist as a distinctly teenage milieu, inviting the sort of adolescent perspectives that only Evan and his inseparable best friend Seth (multiple Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill) can offer. We all know the darkly existential suburbs that provoke crises of identity in married couples like Lester and Carolyn Burnham ("American Beauty") or Frank and April Wheeler ("Revolutionary Road"), but the ennui of "Superbad"’s suburbs signifies mere dullness, not hollowness. After all, for Seth and Evan, life has yet to start. The faceless setting of the film acts as a holding zone, a sort of purgatory in which they must toil before the wonders of college—and, more critically, excursion into the outside world—may begin. Evan’s got a big bright future ahead of him, and the frightening realization that Seth may not share those prospects threatens to tear their friendship asunder. They generate drama through their ability (or failure) to grow out of the suburbs; while Evan’s somewhat prepared for the wide road before him, Seth’s a little too content in his own enclave.
"Superbad"’s suburban milieu holds onto its resident nobodies by its very smallness and insularity. This type of neighborhood breeds lifer types—it’s not hard to imagine that Hader and Rogen’s cops once pedaled trikes around the very same streets that they patrol during the film, as they confide in Fogell that they miss their own days of mischief-making. There’s comfort to be had in knowing just where everything is in a town, as if a community bubble could slow the crazy inexorable march of time to a standstill.
Director Greg Mottola’s editing strategies, along with Rogen and Goldberg’s day-in-the-life plot structure, underscore the spatial relationships between the settings of various scenes and convey the coziness and constraint that characterizes the ‘burbs of Clark County. At its essence, everything in "Superbad" revolves around transportation. Like "American Graffiti"—the Rosetta Stone of teen coming-of-age films, if ever there was one—personal agency hinges entirely upon the ability to get from one place to another. ("Superbad"’s slice-of-life hangout vibe evokes the feel of another high school classic, Richard Linklater’s epochal "Dazed and Confused.") In metropolitan areas, everything worth going to beyond a walkable radius can be easily accessed via a public transportation system. But in the loosely-connected network of third spaces that makes up the suburbs, a young man must have a car if he wishes to do—or be—anything. In their script, Rogen and Goldberg expend no shortage of effort depicting the various methods by which Seth and Evan amble their way from locale to locale. Seth picks Evan up to drive him to school in the morning. From there, they park at the corner convenience store, and then walk to school, taking Seth’s car to Evan’s house after class gets out. They have to take the bus to the supermarket, then again to the liquor store, all before hitching a ride with the squeaky-voiced weirdo played by Joe Lo Truglio. Goldberg and Rogen want the audience to be aware of the paradoxical geographical outlay of Clark County’s suburbs, where everything’s simultaneously too close together yet far away enough to be inaccessible. The rhythms of the film’s edits reflect the vital necessity of transportation as well. Instead of cutting away from one scene to an establishing shot of the next location and placing the characters directly into the new space, the scenes bleed into one another. The state of being in transit is a location all its own, a zone into which the camera follows Seth and Evan.
But that sensation of general smallness extends beyond "Superbad"’s roadmap into the film’s overarching stakes. As films that center on climactic parties go (a teen film genre with no small number of entries), "Superbad" keeps it comparatively low-key. Unlike the earth-shaking centerpiece of "Project X," the bash late in "Superbad"’s second act kind of, well, sucks. By the time Seth and Evan make their delayed arrival, the scene’s crawling with over-inebriated teenagers. Rogen and Goldberg waste no time in dismantling the one force that’s driven the motion of the film—Evan’s crush Becca (Martha MacIsaac) couldn’t care less that he’s failed to bring her her prized Goldslick vodka. Seth and Evan both strike out in comparably spectacular ways, with Seth inadvertently headbutting Jules (an early-career Emma Stone, a treat) and Evan narrowly avoiding a shotgun blast of projectile vomit from Becca. They don’t lose their virginities, and it’s not a night they’ll cherish for the rest of their lives. It’s another deadbeat summer night in a town where not much of anything happens.
Rogen and Goldberg also use subtler methods to convey the intrinsic smallness of Seth and Evan’s hometown. One specific detail—slight enough to be written off as a quick gag—speaks volumes about the suburban sprawl’s sensation of enclosure. During Fogell’s first unsuccessful attempt to purchase liquor, he nervously drops a sixer of beers, and they explode all over the floor. The attendant who comes to clean them up looks forlornly down at the floor and groans, resigned to his fate, “fuck my life.”It appears to be a one-off laugh until Seth and Evan make it to the seedier party later on. The same attendant bursts through the door with a box of liquor bottles in hand and excitedly announces his intentions to get fucked up. This is precisely how life works in the suburbs; you keep running into the same people everywhere you go. The likes of "The Simpsons" and "Parks and Recreation" have pulled this same trick to establish a sense of continuity and familiarity that both rewards repeat viewers and creates the illusion of a living township. It’s tougher to do on film than in television, which has the benefit of longevity on its side. But with this peripheral detail, the film cements its own sense of suburban realism.
For many suburb-dwellers, the cumulative effect of all this smallness is a sense of anticipation, an eagerness to go out into “the world” (anything from military service to the workforce to higher education) and begin life proper. For some, however, a suburban neighborhood can become womb-like—comforting, warm, and nurturing while also retarding meaningful growth. Seth falls into the latter category and Evan the former, and the film’s emotional crux hangs on the friction generated by that difference. Seth constantly bitches about their suburban enclave’s lameness, but it’s not hard to see that he’s extremely comfortable. He’s got a handle on the terrain. He understands how the system works and how to game it (as we can see from his brash choice to park in the teacher’s lot in the morning). He’s riding high as a senior coming up on graduation week, flouting school rules at every turn. The prospect of an impending change-up is threatening to him—it would disturb his happy stasis. Doubly so, since his other half Evan plans on expanding his personal sphere all the way out to private college in another part of the country while Seth sticks around at a state school.
In their climactic confrontation, Seth accuses Evan of not being a supportive friend, and Evan counters with the far more reasonable accusation that Seth’s holding him back. Seth’s underlying excess of fondness for his neighborhood turns high schoolers into townies, and Evan’s bound for greater things. Not coincidentally, the film ends with the pair moving in opposite directions, their lines of sight slowly severed as the camera moves down the escalator.
It’s a rather mournful ending for a film as funny as "Superbad." Rogen and Goldberg find so much humor in the particulars of life as a bored seventeen-year-old, from the discreetness of porn site titles to denim tightness. They’re experts when it comes to crafting the disposable babble that bored kids use to kill time until something—anything—happens. "Superbad" exists in the time directly preceding that moment when things begin to happen, spinning the ennui unique to the suburbs out of drunken adolescent ramblings. To crib a phrase, it’s only teenage wasteland.
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