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(Bad) Neighbors is not a film that made me happy. It somehow tries to show what it means to grow up and have a family but it only occasionally dares to show any of its themes in a realistic way. It goes for over-the-top and silly instead, which is not surprising and not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a shame since there are some glimpses of a better, truer movie in here. Blink and you’ll miss them, but they’re there. Yes, you have less time as a parent and sometimes wish to do something you can’t do anymore, but if your deepest desires are having parties with people who are ten years younger than you and to get high, well… then maybe something hasn’t been working for you even before you had kids. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne do their job well enough, but most of the time you feel like watching some improv scenes that never end. It is funny at times but there is no real structure behind it, as they just seem to keep going. The plot is also annoying because there probably could have been a much better movie if it hadn’t been moving in the “Let’s see who’s meaner” direction so relentlessly. It’s such a lazy thing to show two sides battling each other for no real reason. I felt amusement and embarrassment simultaneously throughout the movie but the more time passes since I’ve seen it, the worse I feel about it.
I couldn’t help but remember the controversy, not so much about the movie, but following it after Elliot Rodger killed six people in California this May and claimed his frustration with women and jealousy of men living a better life than him as a reason. Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post more or less claimed that movies like Neighbors are responsible for such a crime, since they emphasize men’s fantasies of living a life where they can do what they want and get the woman in the end (which led to Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow reacting angrily and without actually dealing with her argument). While I don’t agree with her essay, mostly because it’s not written very convincingly, I can see where she is coming from.
Let’s look at the movie. Theoretically, Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) share the same interests as a married couple who fear their life is over now and they want to continue partying. To include Kelly as a woman is an interesting idea because we don’t see that very often. It’s this new tradition since Bridesmaids (I assume, still haven’t seen that), in which women in movies can behave “like men” by making sex jokes, drinking and taking drugs, wanting sex and being vulgar. Which is fine as a concept and works in some parts of the movie, especially when there is some truth shown about staying home as a mom and being slightly frustrated about it. But it’s still Mac as the one who smokes joints while working and him waiting for his wife’s reaction if they can go out at night. It’s mostly little moments but it makes clear that while she does enjoy some of this fun and they are in it together, it’s still him who is the poor child who had to grow up and has to be responsible. In other words, he is much more allowed to still have these fantasies about partying and being cool. She goes along with it but she is never the driving force, she often goes along with his stupid ideas. When the new frat boy neighbors move in, she says: “This is a fucking nightmare!” which it would be if you have a baby and a group of partying students move in next door. He says: “I agree.” and before you can’t believe him, he already says: “Maybe don’t come out strong. Maybe we act cool.” and she nods along like an idiot. Look at the slo-mo that shows them “being cool”, he wears a baseball cap and looks like 40-year-old teenager, she wears green sunglasses. And when they go talk to Teddy (Zac Efron), again it’s her screwing it up by being too adult, too strict. You know, she just can’t be cool. It’s not in her chromosomes.
This continues throughout the movie. Yes, she does stupid things too and acts silly but at first she always wants to be reasonable and he convinces her not to be. Why? Because she is boring and he is cool. Stupid, but at least not, you know, grown up. While in theory she can be the cool female buddy that every boy dreams about, she is still remains the “responsible” and in comparison dull one. In the one scene where she comes up with a plan that is mean and tough, and she really talks like a man, he calms her down, being worried that their daughter’s first word will be “cunt.” It’s insane! He swears all the time (well, both do) and he never worries about that. He seems more worried that Mommy becomes too cool and upstages him, so he has to put her down (gently). Not to forget that in one of the first lines of the movie, he calls his wife “bitch”, because he thinks that’s sexy, while their daughter is in the room. And again, although she tells him that’s not cool, there is still this idea of “It is cool, but our women can’t let us have what we want, dammit!”
Of course, you shouldn’t even look at Teddy and his frat boys for any serious treatment of women. They have fun and make no distinction between alcohol, drugs or women. They are all to their disposal and so they are no distinctive female characters in their house at all. Which makes none of them sympathetic but then again, no one really is. Everyone is a little bit stupid and even if we want to say “Aren’t we all a little stupid sometimes?” this makes not for an appealing movie.
Did you take a look at the poster? It is of course “Rogen/Efron”, with no mentioning of Rose Byrne although she shares most of his screen time. There is an alternative poster where she is there too, of course standing behind him but even her name is on the poster. But this naturally is not the official poster even if it is truer to the movie. Two bros battling it out is just cooler than adding a wife. It’s all about symmetry, you know.
So, does this movie make people go on a rampage and kill people? Of course not. But it does portray men and women in a particular way and it is definitely not alone in that. What is so special here, though, is how it pretends to give men and women a somewhat equal treatment but then constantly sidesteps this idea, so that only the surface is slightly progressive. At its core, the movie treats no new ground. You can’t blame the movie for it because it comes from a culture that doesn’t think outside its norms because it survives by its norms.