Booze at the Movies: Gender, Sexuality and the Rites of Vodka in Superbad

I finally watched Superbad last week, expecting to half love it and half find it wincingly PROBLEMATIC in places. I’ve been to a few of Judd Apatow’s parties before, and that’s the state of mind in which I typically walk away.

But actually? I pretty much just loved it.

OK: the female characters aren’t all that developed, but to the extent that they are, they are at least believable. (If, like Katherine Heigl’s character in Knocked Up, I had to run around a set attending to Ryan Seacrest every day, I’d probably barf my guts up every day, pregnancy or no pregnancy. That she has no sense of humor about her job – or pretty much anything else – always strikes me as weird and suspicious.) And the movie talks about the relationship between alcohol, sexuality and gender in a way that’s awkward and honest and ambiguous and refreshing.

And funny.

Photo via Not a Real Thing. (None of the alcohol brands in this movie are real things.)

The capsule plot: Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are about to graduate from high school and move on to different schools. They’re disliked enough to get specifically uninvited to one grad party, but manage to get invited – and asked to procure alcohol for – another. Seth’s crush is hosting; Evan’s crush will be there; their friend Fogell has a tenuous line on a fake ID. Highjinx – involving Seth Rogen and Bill Hader as a couple of absurdly shitty, inept cops, a sketch-as-hell adult party complete with multiple fistfights, period stains and Seth being commanded to sing “These Eyes” by a room full of coked-up burnouts who are convinced they know him from somewhere.

When they get to the party, Becca, Evan’s crush is already hammered, and has, Evan learns, been talking all night about how badly she wants to blow him. The scene that precedes the clip here is maybe the most beautifully awkward courtship scene I’ve ever seen: Becca engages in a clumsy strip tease, while Evan recites a rehearsed-but-sincere speech about how special she is to him.

And then this happens.

The clip ends right before she pukes all over the bed. (Does that qualify as a spoiler? Fuck it. Consider yourself spoiled.)

And here’s the thing: I love me a broad comedy. But where broad comedies so often go wrong – and the reason so many of them don’t age well – is that they derive a lot of their comedic mileage from shame. The kid who says he wants his first sexual experience to be special and romantic usually either turns out to be lying, or secretly afraid of sex, or just a depressingly emasculated character we should pity. Evan’s not any of those things; he comes to the party armed with not just a condom, but a tube of spermicidal lubricant, for which I’d give him a high-five and a goddamn medal if I knew him in real life.

By the same token, in this kind of movie, sexually aggressive girls are either cartoonishly slutty or have desperately low self-esteem. While Becca isn’t an especially well-developed character, we get to know her well enough to know that neither of these things are the case. They’re both completely normal kids who just don’t know what the hell they’re doing. And the movie makes it clear that that’s OK, that teenagers are entitled to their fuckups and their happy endings too.

Evan is completely apprehensive about having sex with Becca while she’s so drunk, and I think the movie handles this really, really well. More than once, he asks, “Isn’t that, like, unethical?” and is assured, “No, man – not if you’re drunk, too!” That never fully reassures him, and that’s OK. John Hughes, creepily, didn’t think to write a conversation like that in to 16 Candles; that the movie broaches the issue but also doesn’t go for an easy, tacky “if-it-contains-the-word-rape-it’s-automatically-shocking-and-therefore-a-punchline” joke strikes the right balance of believability and responsibility.

And the counterpoint to Evan’s apprehension: the story is driven by Seth’s conviction that they have to show up at the party with alcohol, largely because he’s convinced his crush, Jules, won’t sleep with him – nor be convinced to date him for the summer – unless she’s drunk, a plan he confesses to her only after learning she doesn’t drink at all. It’s this weird, sad, gorgeous little scene – Wait a minute? You like me for me? I don’t have to trick you? Relationships with women are not just transactional?!??? – that ends with him passing out and giving her a black eye in the process. But Seth and Jules get their happy ending, too.

I hear people talking about how people drink to numb their emotions, but more rarely about how they drink to access feelings they normally can’t, due to the wiring of their brains or the circumstances of their lives. My mother told me once that when she first started drinking – at parties, with friends – her thoughts would almost inevitably turn to her family, and how much, how hard, she loved them. My mother’s family was not big on emotional expression, and belonged to a church that prohibited the use of alcohol, for which reason she was ambivalent about the fact that she drank at all. (Even in writing this, a few years after Mom’s passing, I worry a little that I am selling her out.) I made the case once to an ex, who very much believed in the transcendent powers of psychedelics, that alcohol can bring about little spiritual revolutions, too, on occasion, at least for those of us who are freaked out by things like “feelings” and “sincerity” and “touching people, even people we’re totally comfortable with.”

Superbad is hardly the first pop culture product to feature too boozed-up men declaring that they love each other; the trope’s been used to sell beer. But it is the first I’ve ever seen to do it completely sincerely. Well, the scene is sincere at first. But then it gets overly long and awkward and therefore funny, kind of like having a chaser after someone hands you a really nasty shot at a party. Or a well-balanced emotional cocktail, which teenagers rightly don’t give a damn about. But you walk away from the movie feeling like someday, they will.