Wednesday, April 30, 2014

'Bad Neighbours' (2014) directed by Nicholas Stoller

The frat house genre spreads its tentacles throughout comedy like a pissed up, stoned octopus. From Porky's and Animal House on upwards the genre works within very narrowly defined boundaries that mean every frat film has basically the same plot - yet people never seem to get sick of them.  That ur-frat-plot revolves around three crazy parties.  The first party creates problems the boys have to overcome, the second exacerbates those problems and the third resolves them.  Along the way someone will puke, you'll get to see some tits and that one nerdy guy will either take drugs or shag a fat girl (preferably both for max laffs).  

Bad Neighbours follows this template to the letter, though slightly distinguishes itself by framing the frat house from the perspective of two thirty-ish parents living next door.  They are Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), the two trying to juggle caring for their year old daughter with continuing the mildly hedonistic lifestyle they enjoyed in their twenties. Unfortunately they're losing the battle: defeated by their responsibilities towards the baby and the subsequent fact that they're knackered all day.

The situation is kicked up a notch when a party-crazy frat house moves in next door. These guys are your stereotypical bro types, all shades, tans and popped collars. Their leader is Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), sporting a physique so defined that Rogen memorably describes it as looking "like an arrow pointing to your cock". As soon as they're neighbours the frat boys launch into the first of a series of titanic house parties; replete with bass drops, shrooms, weed and people drinking out of bright red cups.  

Mac and Kelly don't want to seem like old duffers so they join in, but soon the constant bass rattling through their house gets to them.  They call the cops with a noise complaint, and from this point the two houses are feuding; Mac and Kelly conniving and plotting to get the frat kicked out of the college and the frat planning like, totally the biggest and most craziest party EVER.

There are worse setups for a comedy and by and large Bad Neighbours goes about its task as concise and professional a manner as possible. Make no bones about it, the film has its fair share of big laughs, though through much of it everyone involved appears to be on autopilotes.  Seth Rogen is, once more, playing pretty much himself.  I suppose you don't hire Seth Rogen and expect Daniel Day-Lewis, but he's hardly being stretched with material like this.  Granted, he does this schtick well enough, but to see him guzzling magic mushrooms and dealing with responsibility begins to feel increasingly like a retread of Knocked Up.

Rose Byrne fares a bit better, sinking her teeth into a stereotype-defying role.  She's smart, fun and angry in ways that female characters aren't generally allowed to be, at one point angrily pointing out that she's got every right to be just as irresponsible as any man. One thing I like most about Byrne is that she's utterly unafraid of making herself look completely ridiculous - possibly the most memorable scene of the film is her clutching her breasts in pain and demanding that a terrified Seth Rogen "milk me now, dammit!".

Do you find this picture of Seth Rogen having sex with some topiary funny?  If yes then you will probably enjoy this film.
By comparison the frat boys over the road are pretty much two-dimensional. Zac Efron is a touch too old to be playing a teenager and to be honest, given his sturdy dramatic performances in Parkland and The Paperboy it's a little disappointing seeing him regress to boneheaded comedy.  Nobody else really stands out among the students, save for the bizarre and unexpected appearance of Craig Roberts as put-upon pledgee 'Assjuice'.  What on earth is the unassuming, introverted star of Submarine and Benny & Jolene doing here? He gamely shoots for an American accent (by way of Caerphilly) and does a decent enough job, but I hope this isn't the kind of role he's going for to try and 'break America'.

That aside, Bad Neighbours is a decent enough comedy film - with at least enough intelligence to pin down some fairly universal concepts. Mac and Kelly's desire to stay young and fun while also trying their hardest to be responsible parents is the kind of thing that everyone in their early 30s has to deal with. Crucially we see that the wild, UV drenched and drug saturated parties - depicted as a kind of low-rent, toned down version of Spring Breakers - are fun.  But we also empathise with the annoyance of having bass booming through the bedroom walls and disturbing your child night after night. This tug of war going on their heads makes a huge amount of sense; and when they're finally driven to calling the police on the frat house we experience a touch of their guilt at becoming 'the man'.

But these positive things are balanced against a bunch of stuff that doesn't really work.  The film slides into cartoon territory towards the end, with a series of low-key fight scenes that don't really work, a tedious reliance on endless cutaways to a cute baby's reaction to things and a pat emotional climax that reeks of a studio-mandated reshoot.

As far as mainstream US comedies go Bad Neighbours isn't scraping the bottom of the barrel, but you can see the bottom from here.  It's relatively amusing and rarely hilarious, with a workmanlike double act from Rogen and Byrne giving it a solid core.  Unfortunately this plays it safe every chance it can get; the end result being vaguely okay but way too cookie-cutter and formulaic to actually recommend.  You'll be forgetting it as soon as the credits roll.


Bad Neighbours is on general release from May 3rd

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