With the new year approaching, we celebrate our films of 2014. Nicholas Stoller’s Bad Neighbours is up.
When a comedy has Enter the Void and Ocean’s Eleven as influences, you know you’re in for something special. Tighter than your typical movie from the Apatow stable, laugh-out-loud funnier and warmer than any other 2014 comedy and, yes, Bechdel-approved, Bad Neighbours is all the more remarkable because it didn’t need to be any of those things. At least not from a box office perspective: a frat house comedy starring Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, Bad Neighbours would’ve made money anyway. But a game cast and a director with fresh ambition earned the film’s success.
The frat’s legend is to be enjoyed by new generations, as they must move away from the games onto adulthood and responsibility
The premise sees a married couple with a newborn (Rogen and Rose Byrne) waging war against the hard-partying fraternity that just moved in next door. The leaders of Delta Psi Beta, Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco, who’s quietly becoming more reliable than his more famous brother), fight back in predictably ostentatious fashion, having spent their entire college lives trying to create a legend for themselves. What Pete comes to accept that Teddy can’t, though, is that a legend is to be enjoyed by new generations, as they must move away from the games onto adulthood and responsibility.
It’s not exactly the first time the theme has been explored in adolescent comedy, but there is something particularly melancholic in how Bad Neighbours tackles it. The easy bond between the members of the fraternity makes it tough to watch their time together coming to an end. Hosting dance-offs and debating who’s the best Batman (Keaton or Bale?) until sun-up, they’re basically innocents not quite ready for the real world, wasting time in a way that – let’s be honest – most of us probably wish we could. They’re not just dumb frat boys, but rounded characters unprepared for an uncertain future.
Zac Efron lends an endearing cocksurety and hardly-concealed vulnerability to Teddy, in a performance that leaves High School Musical behind him once and for all. Rogen, however, does this kind of R-rated, semi-improvised comedy in his sleep, and it’s he who has perhaps the most interesting transitional role. Whereas ten years ago Rogen would’ve played one of the frat, here he’s the elder neighbour, desperately trying to prove to them and himself that he’s still cool. We’ve watched Rogen getting high with his buddies for years, but now he’s finally having to grow up.
Bad Neighbours has been ecstatically lensed – see those Enter the Void/Spring Breakers-inspired party scenes
Where Rogen’s role is given an extra layer due to the actor’s on-screen baggage, Rose Byrne’s performance benefits from her never having played a character like this before. Vacillating from caring and motherly, to commanding and downright vicious (“You’re gonna have to milk me!”), it seems Byrne has just been waiting for the opportunity to prove her mettle; if comedy performances were nominated for Oscars, she’d be a real contender this year. Instead of director Nicholas Stoller lazily trading on Byrne’s beauty as filmmakers almost always have, she is – incredibly – allowed to make a whole character out of Kelly.
Giving some depth to a female character is just one of the leaps Stoller makes with his fourth film as director. Whereas past efforts like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek were flatly photographed and indulgently improv’d, Bad Neighbours has been handsomely, occasionally ecstatically lensed (see those Enter the Void/Spring Breakers-inspired party scenes) and edited down to only the core story and the most potent gags. Stoller has said goodbye to flabby, ordinary filmmaking and hit his stride, and he’s achieved a higher laugh count in the process.
Though appearances from modern coming-of-age icons (Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Submarine’s Craig Roberts both appear as members of Delta Psi) and the vibrancy of the frat scenes may suggest it’s young life that’s the focus, Bad Neighbours simultaneously has two prominent concerns. It’s at once about both that period in life where one must leave wildness behind in order to grow the hell up, and about realising when the time is right to settle down, start a family and stop living just for oneself.
Bad Neighbours is more sophisticated than the vast majority of Hollywood comedies aspire to be
Where so many of the great films this year were cold and ruthless (think The Wolf of Wall Street, Under the Skin, Nightcrawler), Bad Neighbours had heart. Most inventive and subversive comedy of the year goes to The Lego Movie, but Bad Neighbours takes the overall comedy of 2014 award for soul, as well as comedic flare. It’s more sophisticated than the vast majority of Hollywood comedies aspire to be, but when all’s said and done, it’s also the only movie of 2014 that features a Robert De Niro party. That is to say, it’s still an inspired comedy – it just happens to be successfully moving and thought-provoking at the same time as it is hilarious.
All images: Universal