If only Bad Neighbours were better, funnier, more inspired. At least the stars shine.

By Christos Tsiolkas.

Saved by Rogen’s joshing

Everybody needs good neighbours … unfortunately Zac Efron, Seth Rogen and  Rose Byrne  don’t fit the bill.
Everybody needs good neighbours … unfortunately Zac Efron, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne don’t fit the bill.
Credit: Essential Media & Entertainment
There is a moment halfway through Bad Neighbours when an increasingly hysterical new mother, Kelly (Rose Byrne), is arguing with her feckless husband, Mac (Seth Rogen), and at his suggestion they call his mother for assistance. Outraged, she yells, “What is it with you fucking Jews and your mothers?” The line falls flat, and it isn’t a problem of delivery. The writers have misjudged what it is that we as an audience respond to in Seth Rogen’s persona. 

He is possibly a first: a great Jewish-North American comedian whose humour is free of neurosis or aggression. Unlike Woody Allen, and unlike Lenny Bruce, Zero Mostel, Mel Brooks, and more recently, Lena Dunham and Sarah Silverman, there is no sense from Rogen that he is measuring himself against some WASP ideal of beauty. Nor is he in conflict with his family’s social expectations. He is a suburban doper, immersed in a popular culture in which African-North American expression easily trumps anything produced by blue-eyed blondes. Rogen always gives off the sense that he knows the consumer world around him is privileged, cartoonish; you also know that is exactly how he wants it. At his best, what connects him to the rich history of Jewish-American comedy is this anarchic adolescent glee. 

There is much to like in Bad Neighbours when it is being adolescent, indulging in scatological and un-PC jokes and slapstick. It is also blessedly short, clocking in at under 100 minutes. But you can’t help but wish it was better, funnier, more inspired. Rogen and Byrne are delicious together but the film is stodgily directed and the scripting cavalier. They play new parents who are dismayed when a college fraternity moves in next door. They get on the bad side of the frat president, Teddy (Zac Efron), and the plot is basically a series of escalations of the revenge each set of neighbours devises to get the upper hand. The slapstick becomes wearying after a while; part of the problem is that the other characters in the frat house are lazily sketched and have no distinct personalities. There is plenty of booze, drugs and sex but these are basically indifferent conservative kids. 

The film wants to play on the conflict Kelly and Mac experience in living next door to these frat boys, on the anxiety and resentment they themselves feel in settling for suburban parenthood. But there is no sense that through their interactions with these students they are offered glimpses of alternative directions they could have taken as a couple, of different choices they could have made. They are certainly not living next door to the Delta Tau Chi frat from National Lampoon’s Animal House, the 1978 John Landis comedy that featured John Belushi’s inspired turn as the degenerate and wonderfully filthy Bluto. Bad Neighbours borrows consciously from the Landis film for some of the contrivances that fuel the fraternity plot, but it is a pity the writers haven’t worked on creating a character as misanthropic and dirty as Bluto to act as both a foil to and a temptation for Rogen’s character. There is also never a sense of sexual threat in Kelly and Mac’s relationship, any hint of the possibility of adultery. For all the drugs and all the sex, Bad Neighbours is remarkably chaste.

But Byrne and Rogen kept me watching. There is genuine warmth and affection in both their lovemaking and their bickering, and the quicksilver alternation between their fear and their pride in being parents is expertly played. Byrne matches Rogen for comic flair and there is a scene when Kelly is on the phone to her husband, trying to express something of the boredom she feels at being stuck at home with a baby, where Byrne transcends the slapstick framing of the film. She suggests that Kelly’s dissatisfaction is not going to be easily assuaged by getting the better of Teddy and the other frat boys, that maybe abandoning the freedom of adolescence may prove harder for her than for Mac. The suggestion is there in the scripting, but the power of the moment belongs completely to the actor. The film raises the question of her ennui, then quickly shies away from it, culminating in a happy ending that validates both being a parent and being a stoner, suggesting you can have your pizza and eat it, too. But the disconcerting doubt that there has been a loss for Kelly, as well as a gain, in her becoming a mother can’t be easily dismissed.

The day after I saw the movie, when most of it had faded away, I could still vividly recall Byrne’s essaying of Kelly’s discomfort and feelings of constraint. It is even more remarkable that it occurs in a movie where the other female characters have so little presence. I make honourable exceptions for Carla Gallo, who manages to snatch some opportunity to shine from an underwritten role as Kelly’s best friend; and for Lisa Kudrow, who forges comic gold from the few moments of screen time allotted to her as the college dean. But the women who party at the frat house are almost invisible. This could be taken as the writers making a comment on the frat boys’ sexism, their pledge to honour their “bros” over their “hos”, but I choose to read it as a further sign the writers were as bored as I was with the mechanisms of the fraternity plot.

Zac Efron, it must be said, is very good. Blessed with phenomenally beautiful looks, he mines his character to deliver a bittersweet portrait of a good-looking man who realises he might not have much else going for him in this life. As with Rose Byrne, he commits to the caricatured grotesquery of the film but also suggests the elements of the sadness and anxiety that underlie his character. It is not only the “old” neighbours next door who are fearful of change.

But Bad Neighbours is Seth Rogen’s film. His unselfishness is part of his charm; he wants the supporting cast to have an equally good time as himself. In a deftly executed comic coda, he and Efron indulge in a bare-chested dance. There Rogen is, next to one of the most perfect bodies in Hollywood, with his flabby tits and belly, his hairy back, giving himself over to the delight of the moment. There is no anxiety, no competitiveness, and certainly no aggression or guilt. He is an amoral, blissed-out, sexy clown. Just watching him makes me happy.

This piece was edited on May 14, 2014, to correct an error that misidentified Seth Rogen as American. He is Canadian.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 10, 2014 as "Saved by Rogen's joshing".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

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