For many seniors, including the class clown, nerd and geek at the center of this raucous raunchfest, the need to leave home is as urgent as the need not to leave friends. Looming over those is that Hollywood-imposed third need: to lose virginity by graduation.
Clownish Seth (Jonah Hill) and nerdy Evan (Michael Cera) are best buds, their bond forged by years of social exclusion. The potty-mouthed extrovert and soft-spoken introvert are the guys generally not invited to the party.
Their fortunes improve when überbabe Jules (Emma Stone) asks Seth to her bash - and will he buy the booze? Evan's excited because his crush, Becca (Martha MacIsaac), makes plans to see him there.
The codependent chums are so jazzed just by being asked that they don't think through how to purchase the firewater. Enter the geek, Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) - so screechy and scrawny that he makes misfits Seth and Evan look popular - proffering a fake I.D.
What ensues is a night of tension and terror - imagine the sexual and social humiliations of American Pie crossed with the Kafkaesque detours of After Hours - and a test of friendship and character.
Written by Seth Rogen (the Knocked Up star who appears here as a cop) and Evan Goldberg (who reportedly started writing the script when they were 13), Superbad has main characters who share the names of their creators.
They draw fine (and funny) distinctions between these high school losers. And they wittily measure the enormous gap between the guy who thinks he's talking cool and the listeners who hear him as clueless.
Although Seth and Evan wouldn't put it this way, the two young men discover in life, as in love, everyone else feels just as insecure and awkward as you do. In other words, love makes everyone a nerd.
Because the screenwriters and director Greg Mottola (maker of the underappreciated The Daytrippers) are so identified with (and affectionate toward) the characters, their film, raunchy as it is, generates a great deal of goodwill.
And a great deal of impatience. Mottola lets every scene run on too long. Apparently, he is unaware that brevity is comedy's secret ingredient.
Probably not since Y Tu Mama Tambien has a movie taken such a close look at the dynamics of male friendship, including its homosocial subtext. Here, it's not a woman who threatens to come between the protagonists, but a male friend. Fogell, like Evan, is bound for Dartmouth; Seth is headed to State and regards Fogell with the contempt and jealousy of a rival suitor for his beloved's affections.
As for the film's extended subplot involving Fogell and party-hearty cops (Rogen and Bill Hader) he encounters at the liquor store, I wouldn't be surprised if the Fraternal Order of Police put Superbad on its most-hated list.
Superbad *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Greg Mottola, written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. With Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Distributed by Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Running time: 1 hour, 54 mins.
Parent's guide: R (pervasive profanity, sexual candor, underage drinking, drugs)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/