The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Bad Neighbours

Written by Matt Denny.

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It's a funny thing, hindsight. Or perhaps hindsight isn't exactly the right word. What I'm finding funny here (and more funny peculiar than funny ha-ha) is how differently things appear when you look at them for a second time. Such is the nature of writing for Alternate Takes. One writes a review shortly after seeing a film, dashing off a few hurried lines whilst the film is still fresh in the mind. At least this is how it is for me, and I'll be the first to admit that because of this I'm responsible for some rather inflated "personal enjoyment" grades. You see, I just love going to the cinema, so in some respects a film is guaranteed at least three stars just for being a film. If it has an actor I'm particularly fond of in it, then you can probably add another star right there. As you can imagine this soon adds up, and my reviews are more often positive than not. Then comes the time to write the Alternate Take. The more sober, considered piece of writing. Before I begin, I familiarise myself with what I've written in my review. Mostly I agree with my past self, but there are times when I doubt my judgement. This is such a time.

I gave Bad Neighbours (known more simply as Neighbors in the US) a score of 3/5 for filmmaking and a 4/5 for personal enjoyment. On a second viewing, I'd probably deduct 1 from each of those scores. This time around, the film's episodic nature and lack of narrative or character progression really grated. The film amounts to little more than a series of skits, although many of these did still produce laughs second time around. Dave Franco as an uncannily accurate Meet the Parents era DeNiro remains a highlight. The film's unevenness is further compounded by the strange juxtaposition of scenes that are rather naturalistic and conversational in tone with others that are far more artificial and stagey. This can of course can be a great source of comedy in and of itself (I think here of Parks and Recreation or The Office in its American iteration) but in Bad Neighbours it just feels patchy. Compare, for example, the rather lacklustre "Baby's first Rave" sequence with Kelly's (Rose Byrne) exclamation of "I was so rude to her!" on being informed that "Dean" is a job title rather than a name (the Dean, incidentally, is played by Lisa Kudrow in full Regina Phalange mode). Of course, my varied reactions to these scenes may have something to do the former being coloured with my distaste for the non-expressive use of frame-within-a-frame techniques, and the latter for my particular fondness for Rose Byrne. Noting this, it seems appropriate to consider the character of Kelly in more detail.

In my review, I claim that "the real triumph of the film is that Kelly is as much a part of the confrontation and crazy scheming as either Mac or Teddy." To an extent I'd stand by this claim, but only to an extent. It's true that Kelly escapes the severely limiting role of the responsible but party-pooping partner all too common in this type of film. The wife or partner is the responsible one, while the male lead is free to mess around, mess up, and have fun. And therein lies the crucial problem with this gender imbalance. The pleasure of comedy - especially this particular brand of juvenile, man-boy comedy - is in seeing someone break rules, a vicarious enjoyment in their irresponsible behaviour. To borrow the film’s own terms, we all want to be Kevin James. Was ever a more chilling sentence written?

Bad Neighbours is partially successful in this respect. Kelly doesn't stop Mac (Seth Rogen), she doesn't urge him to be responsible, she doesn't spoil his fun. She does however, leave Mac briefly when things get too crazy and their daughter is put at risk. It’s also necessary to consider not the just the extent of Kelly’s involvement in the shenanigans, but the nature of that involvement. When Kelly and Mac first attend a party at the frat' house, Mac goes straight for the mushrooms while Kelly has to curtail her dancing in order for the baby monitor to stay in range. Great, the female lead’s at the party! Oh wait her husband’s being a fun guy on shrooms while she’s acting responsibly. Much like Kelly’s dance moves, it’s a case of one step forward, two steps back. Thing’s get a lot less rosy when we examine the one scheme that’s entirely Kelly’s, rather than a joint-authored prank. It’s Kelly’s idea to destabilise the Teddy-Pete relationship by convincing Pete to sleep with Teddy’s girlfriend. You might note that I’ve not used the character’s name (it’s Brooke, but I had to Google it), but honestly such is the film’s disdain for the character she might as well be called Mary MacGuffin - her entire significance to narrative is as an object of exchange. Her sorority sisters are also given short shrift, little more than a cooing Greek chorus to the antics of the men.

Kelly’s plan is to get Brooke and Pete drunk enough to sleep together. Kelly encourages this turn of events through deployment of her feminine wiles, kissing both Pete and Brooke. What to make of this scene? On the one hand, it’s good to have Kelly doing something, especially when typically she’d be relegated to waiting for Mac to return so she can give him a damn good scolding. On the other hand, why did the thing Kelly does have to be this? Why does her one identifiably irresponsible trait have to be an ability to break up relationships? That being said, the scene does have a rather amusing pay off which frames Kelly walking away from Pete and Brooke in the manner of an action hero walking away from an explosion. Perhaps I’m being prudish and reactionary though? Perhaps we should be celebrating the fact that the film actually allows Kelly to have a sex drive, and read this scene as an extension of that? The film does have some notable sex sequences for the connoisseur of awkward sex. It’s not quite to the standard of GIRLS (which Teddy has saved on his DVR), but seeing Rose Byrne use a spatula to beat a protesting Seth Rogen is worth the price of admission alone.

More problematic is the milking sequence. It’s the film’s stand-out scene of gross-out humour, and depends entirely on the “weirdness” of the female body. The film does have its fair share of dick jokes, but importantly the men are never depicted as alienated from their own body in quite the way Kelly is when Mac has to milk her. But then I’m viewing and writing from a position that is always-already alienated from a female embodied experience. It might be that others don’t read these sequences the way I do, and I’d be interested to read some alternative viewpoints.

So, Kelly might not quite be the herald of a new age of comedy that I’d suggested in my review, but I do think there’s potential there. Something I haven’t considered is how Byrne’s Australian-ness lends itself to a different kind of characterisation to, for example, Emily Bluntt’s Englishness in The Five Year Engagement. Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect is perhaps a useful point of comparison. This idea is only half formed, and I have a suspicion that it might just be a horrific cultural stereotype on my part, so I won’t pursue it any further for now. Kelly remains a problematic character, but it is at least refreshing for a film to acknowledge the gendered division of labour in comedy.

Mac and Kelly may fight over who gets to be Kevin James, but if any character fits the mould of Kevin James's girlfriend it's Pete (Dave Franco). In the partnership of Teddy and Pete, the latter is "The Responsible One", but the changed nature of this partnership - a homosocial pairing rather than a heterosexual one - gives it a very different flavour. This is clear when we compare the two "couples" in the film. Both couples break-up temporarily (Pete and Teddy, in fact, break-up twice) but the manner of their resolutions are quite different. Pete and Teddy are able to overcome their first falling out by bro-ing out and reeling off a string of rhyming variations on the mantra "bros before hos". Due to limitations of space, I'll only be able to acknowledge the everyday sexism of this sequence and then move on; although I think a fuller investigation of the extent to which irony and performance is deployed here would be interesting.

The next break-up is less easily resolved. Efron gives his best Kurtz in a scene that explores Teddy's commitment to being irresponsible and Pete's growing responsibility. What's interesting is that Pete isn't pictured as a kill-joy here (although he doesn't exactly come across as a good friend either) and Teddy's irresponsibility is mined for tragedy, rather than comedy. Their final scene together is both reconciliation and parting. Teddy stays behind to take the blame for the party, letting Pete escape with a clean record so as not to spoil his future prospects. Now, what I'm about to suggest might sound crazy, but the longer I type the more sense it's going to make:

This scene makes me think of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

That's perhaps rather too contentious a statement, so lets take a step back and be a bit more serious. The gender dynamics of the comedy and the Western are similar. Still with me? Ok. A simplistically structuralist analysis of the comedy and the Western reveals that women are aligned with civilisation and men the wilderness. In both cases, our narrative enjoyment is aligned with the wilderness, but narrative resolution has to at least nod towards the superiority of civilisation - to do otherwise would be far too subversive. But what happens when a male character is aligned with civilisation? What happens when civilisation is male and therefore (according to the type of phallocentric logic operating here) positive? I'd argue that it's here that the conflict becomes tragic, where Zac Efron becomes John Wayne.

Admittedly, this aside is a little tongue in cheek and the argument is far from rigorous, but I think it goes some way to explain why the film doesn't really have a resolution. Mac and Kelly manage to get irresponsibility out of their system, and are thus able to move on and proclaim their love of brunch and coffee. There's not really an adequate explanation for their sudden change of heart, except of course the narrative logic that civilisation has to win in the end. Teddy is left behind, a bare chested savage in blue-jeans.

This Alternate Take was published on October 15, 2014.