Although it’s sometimes too crass for its own good, Bad Neighbours still succeeds by being fast, funny and surprisingly sincere.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
Bad Neighbours works for four particular reasons and being funny, which it is (really, really funny, at that), is surprisingly not number one on that list. After all, you probably already have this film pegged. It proudly touts how it is brought to you “by the people who made This Is The End”, it stars Seth Rogen and its various trailers have played up the loud frat nature of most of the film’s humour. You’re probably thinking it to be yet another Apatow collective comedy: loud, improv-heavy, crass, immature, too long and with nothing going on underneath the surface. And whilst it is often loud and crass and immature, that turns out to not be the only setting it has. In fact, the film’s secret weapon turns out to be its total sincerity to its premise; there’s a genuine sadness bubbling underneath the mayhem which is rooted in characters with real problems that they’re venting through the central feud. There’s more than just “Family vs. Frat” to this movie.
But we shall get to that. Bad Neighbours follows married couple and recent parents Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) who are, to put it bluntly, bored. Mac holds down a dead-end job whilst Kelly’s days are spent in the non-stop company of their newborn child, Stella, and they’re longing for some excitement. Excitement dutifully arrives in the form of their new next-door neighbours: a college fraternity led by its committed president Teddy (Zac Efron) and his smart best friend Pete (Dave Franco). Mac and Kelly are wary but nonetheless end up crashing the frat’s opening night party and having a good time, with Teddy and Mac even managing to start bonding. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation soon hits the parents when the frat start partying the next night. Until 4am.
Their pleas to keep the noise down going unheard, the pair call the cops which backfires spectacularly and leads to them becoming enemies of the frat next door. Unable to sell their house (their delightfully scummy realtor is only willing to give them half what it cost to get the place, and that cost all of their money), their other neighbours effectively paid off by the frat to keep schtum and the college’s Dean (an almost film-stealing Lisa Kudrow) being decidedly unhelpful on the matter, Mac and Kelly plot to get the frat out by any means necessary, roping in their divorced mutual friends Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (Carla Gallo) to help.
So, first things last; yes, Bad Neighbours is hilarious. For a lot of people, and, you know, for a comedy, that fact is pretty frickin’ important and possibly the only thing that matters in the long run. And it is hilarious, there’s a very strong hit/miss ratio at both the loud, crass end and the more subdued end. The gags that do misfire are often at the crasser end of the spectrum, going too far to retain any of their humour and reaching a nadir at a protracted sequence involving Kelly having horribly disfigured un-milked breasts; a sequence that’s only barely redeemed afterwards when Mac and Kelly riff on the situation with awful pun after awful pun. But not everything crass necessarily leads to cringes and desires to just skip ahead: an initially unfunny quick gag revealing Pete’s superhuman ability to produce a boner returns later on for a much better payoff, a standout section of an early montage involves the frat group gathering around the house to see Mac and Kelly have sex (in fact, pretty much any time the pair attempt to have sex is guaranteed several big guffaws), Christopher Mintz-Plasse gets to display quite possibly the most ridiculous gag penis in the history of cinema and the condom joke that’s been played to death in the trailers gets a far funnier punchline in the film proper.
Even outside of the bigger moments, though, the film offers up a consistent stream of solid laughs. A falling out between Teddy and Pete leads to an extended bro-based reconciliation that actually gets funnier as the gags get worse, the entire scene with the frat’s announcement of a Robert DeNiro-themed party is a guide to how you can turn pop culture references into actual jokes near-effortlessly, both scenes with the college’s completely uncaring Dean are laugh riots and the final setpiece, where Mac and Kelly have to sneak into the frat’s house as everyone is being forced out, is the closest I’ve come to seeing videogame stealth sequences being done on film ab-verbatim and it’s friggin’ brilliant. The laughs are extremely consistent and they run the gamut from smirks and chuckles to full on belly laughs, helped along by some ruthless editing. Every joke and beat and plot development gets its due time to breathe but there’s no flab, here. There are maybe three or four scenes that I noticed were predominately improv and of those I could only cut the breast milk skit (which has little relevance to anything and, as previously discussed, just isn’t funny) and maybe tighten up the pre-epilogue Mac and Kelly chat. Otherwise, this is a lean-as-hell joke machine. Its direction is always clear, its aim never rambles and every sequence has been constructed to provide optimum gags at a fast and furious pace. It’s not another The Five-Year Engagement or This Is 40 is what I’m getting at.
Having said that, and as previously alluded to up top, Bad Neighbours also carries a surprising amount of sincerity. This is a movie that commits to its cast of characters first and its premise, frat boys vs family, is there to help drive the characters through their respective predicaments. A lesser comedy would have had the frats be interchangeable dicks with no depth or reason to care for or hate them, even their leaders. Bad Neighbours instead frames Teddy’s conflict with Mac as that of the character having an existential crisis; being in the final year of college with next-to-no qualifications, no career prospects and the near-literal embodiment of the future in store, quiet and old and boring, sat right next door to him. He doesn’t even start up a feud with Mac until they call the cops because, initially, they seem like a fun version of him in 10 or so years’ time, having the house and the wife and the child but still making time to get wasted and cut loose; it’s only when Mac turns out to be everything he fears his future will be that he starts lashing out. Now, admittedly, this is presented as almost straight text that’s basically spelled out in dialogue by another character, whereas an excellent film would leave it as subtext, but it’s still character work that gives our “villain” a reason for doing the things he does, which is an important way in getting events to resonate.
Similarly, the film uses the premise as a way to show to its lead characters just how well off they actually do have it before the frat moves in. There’s even a point midway through the film where they’ve basically “won” the war, yet they go and stir up trouble again anyway. Not because they still want the frat to move out but because they’re bored and this “game” is the most fun they’ve had in a year. It even flirts with switching narrative sympathies for a short while, too, which could have led to a very interesting finale. Alas, Teddy takes things a step too far (in a repeat piece of physical comedy that should be hilarious, but instead lands with a thud because the CG used to achieve it is ludicrously fake and cheap-looking) and the long-term stakes are re-stated and the dynamic goes back to normal. Even if it is a little disappointing a switch-back, it still works and the finale manages to pay off the character work put in to both Teddy & Peter and Mac & Kelly in fun, surprisingly kinda affecting ways. Nothing that will make you bawl your eyes out or anything but enough to make events on-screen matter and certainly with way more effort than both you and I were probably expecting a film like this to have.
Incidentally, I’d like to take a quick time out to praise the writing of Mac and Kelly as a married couple. From pretty much frame one, it’s clear that the pair love each other and that they’re committed to each other. They’re both always in with whatever the other one is cooking up and even scheme together, they’re passionate and when there needs to be a quick gag involving one of the two remarking or insinuating that they’d be willing to sleep with the very handsome Teddy if push-came-to-shove, both of them get involved with the leering. It all helps create a real-feeling relationship. Hell, even during the customary late-film teased break-up it lasts quite literally 94 seconds until Mac tracks down Kelly and the pair make up, their love meaning too much to seriously throw away in a brief moment like that. The film treats them as a loving and devoted couple and trusts that we the audience can accept that as a plausible thing that could happen and it is all the better for it. Both parties are also subjected to a roughly equal amount of gags at their expense (although Mac does get more because he’s the male lead of the film) and both parties are given equal opportunity to scheme or flip out and go crazy which THANK THE MAKER!
(That last sentence will carry a tonne of weight if, like me, you prefer to see your female comedy lead characters not just relegated to the stern buzzkill straight-man role, but that’s a rant and digression for another time.)
So we’ve already covered the laughs, the tight editing and the fact that there is emotional depth and well-handled characters. The fourth and final point in Bad Neighbours’ favour is its superb cast. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne strike up a fun and very easy-going chemistry together with Byrne being better than expected at keeping up with Rogen’s improv tendencies; they give the script that extra push required to help sell the relationship at the centre of it. Separated from each other and/or the relationship stuff, they’re still great. Rogen has a knack for selling anything to the absolute best of his ability (excluding The Guilt Trip, I think I’m yet to see a phoned-in performance from him, in all honesty) and he puts in great work here along with his natural charisma, whilst Byrne seems to be having a tonne of fun when Kelly gets to scheme, pathetically try to act cool or just plain flip out. Dave Franco also turns in a funny and oddly sweet supporting performance as Pete starts to develop a crisis of allegiance between Teddy and his own future as the film runs on.
The stand out, though, and this is predominately because I genuinely didn’t think he had it in him, is Zac Efron as Teddy. To put it another way, Bad Neighbours does to my perception of Efron what 21 Jump Street did to my perception of Channing Tatum: he is excellent in this. It’s not even because he has to play a douchebag, because Teddy isn’t really that much of a douchebag. He’s actually a relatively nice guy who only lapses into a douche when he realises that he’s thrown away his chance at a future and the last chance he has for what he believes to be immortality is being threatened by the very people he’s terrified he will turn into in a few years. There are times when Teddy turns full douche and Efron manages to take all of that pretty-boy charm and put it to excellent reverse-use, but the film mostly asks him to be more nuanced than that and he is more than up to the task. Plus the guy has great comic timing as well as a good screen presence and those, combined with the aforementioned ability to tap into the sadness at the heart of such a character, are what come together to make his scene in the epilogue quite heart-warming as well as really rather funny. Seriously, he is great in this and I hope this is the start of a career renaissance for him because Efron may have made a proper fan out of me due to his turn here.
So, yes, it is loud and crass and rude, sometimes too much so. It earns that 15 rating and it wears it with pride, so if you don’t like that kind of humour then Bad Neighbours probably isn’t for you. But, much like its frat, this is a film that revels in that excess in order to try and hide its true self: that this is a sweet and at times sad film about dealing with aging and mundanity. The fact that it can communicate those things even during a scene in which Seth Rogen and Zac Efron simulate a knife fight with floppy dildos is a testament to just how important that heart is to the film’s success. You know, as well as it being hilarious, expertly paced and very well-performed. Point is, even if nothing about the film’s marketing is speaking to you, you should try and see Bad Neighbours anyway. And if you are already sold on it? You’re in for a treat, this is pretty damn great.