Nicholas Stoller’s Bad Neighbours managed to coast by on a pleasant combination of ribald party antics, some unrisky, bro-centric humour, and a fairly uncomplicated comic scenario: Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne), a married, thirty-something couple nursing their newborn daughter, are tormented by a neighbouring horde of disorderly frat boys, Zac Efron’s Teddy amongst them. There’s outrage, a low-stakes insurrection, the panic of adult complacency, perfunctory lessons learned, and finally, balance restored to white, middle-class suburbia.
From afar, a sequel (much yet a good one) to such a fixed-variable comedy sounds ludicrous, yet Stoller and his team have achieved what, so far in 2016, has seemed almost impossible: not just a good comedy (possibly the first of the year, and we only had to wait until May!), but a funnier, better and more socially progressive installment than its predecessor. If there was any doubt that a mainstream gross-out comedy could cut away the genre’s often odious phallocentrism without alienating its core misogynist audience (yes, you, Ghostbusters trolls), Bad Neighbours 2 takes a boulder to it. It’s not prissy either. You’ll find toddlers clutching dildos, tampons being flung at windows and bared torsos amidst its subversive call to let women and girls be as gross and unruly as men — its ‘wokeness’ doesn’t inhibit its dedication to the lowest of brows.
The not-so-secret secret, it seems, is to add women. Chloe Grace Moretz’s Shelby leads a pack of malcontent college girls who rent the now-empty house of the first film to start Kappa Nu, their own independent sorority, after the revelation that—under an absurdly outdated Greek law—only fraternities are allowed host ‘parties’, sordid affairs where female toplessness is encouraged, “no means yes”, and the punch is almost certainly roofied. Mac and Kelly, meanwhile, have sold their home next door and are waiting to move, but for reasons partially pertaining to not knowing what escrow means, have to endure 30 days of escrow until their buyers finalise the sale. “Girls are usually quiet”, Mac says. “They don’t really take hard drugs, and they’re much smarter.” The film dares Shelby and her misfit gang to go out of their way to disprove him. They’re owed their riotous salad days, but Mac and Kelly are on the precipice of owning two houses they can’t afford in a market that’s gone bust — there’s no real antagonist here but the scourge of pre-millennial social forms.
The interloper in this so-far-so-simple game of get-off-my-lawn is now-reformed frat boy Teddy (Efron), who’s caught in a place that a Seth Rogen character might have been circa 2007: his friends upwardly mobile as he slowly fossilises in retail, adrift. Sorely in need of advice, the sorority induct Teddy to help them get started, forcing a reunion with neighbours Mac and Kelly. Once they’re done with his talents, they shaft him, and he switches his allegiance. Efron is the film’s sweet, touching core as this airheaded Adonis, equal parts calculated, clueless and puppy-dog willing — and while his journey to self-realisation lends the film its emotional heft, it must be said that his gleeful and continued participation in his own objectification is equally vital, bringing its feminist themes into a more, shall we say, immediate focus.
There’s a risk for this all to become mapped or schematic or repetitive, but with three fairly dense groupings of characters to juggle and a score of smoothly inserted cameos, Stoller proves capable of keeping up a mien of lightness. He’s an unfussy director, unafraid to improvise with actors but discerning enough to know when to cut (take note, Apatow), and perfectly content to use unconvincing blue-screen, on-screen text and infographics to provide punchlines and some speedy exposition in much the same way classical screwball comedies could lean on quick-and-easy newspaper clippings to lob a few minutes from the running time. Bad Neighbours 2 is unmannered, and it’s essentially a series of gradually heightening comic set pieces, but it moves fast, and as Stoller’s shortest film to date, it feels packed, consistently funny and mercifully brief. What anchors it, and makes it good, is its two great performances: one from Efron, the other from Rose Byrne.
Seth Rogen’s blockheaded stoner schtick is always reliable, but while he continues to turn up unexpected dramatic weight in meatier work (Steve Jobs, 50/50), the potential of his slouch-in-crisis comic persona has long since expired, and that’s perfectly fine when he’s acting against Byrne. She has been funny and effective before, as Spy’s Russian villainess and Bridesmaids’ silk-stockinged antagonist, and anyone who has stumbled across her Get Him to the Greek audition tape has seen proof of her now-undeniable comic genius, an ability to oscillate freely between manic and pleasurably concussed. In the Neighbours series, stripped of those bold comportments and using her own Australian accent, she’s at her most relaxed and pleasurable to watch. She plays Kelly as a mother dimmed from exhaustion, but with a young inner radical waiting to bust loose — she can snarl or go blank or leap into action as she leads a two year old to the nursery, and feign sexiness as she swallows down a mouthful of spew, mounted mid-coitus atop her beloved. Like Mac, Kelly’s pretending her way through adulthood, but unlike Rogen, Byrne has the skill to show us, in glimpses, the small but compassionate mind working hard behind Kelly’s put-together facade.
Bad Neighbours 2’s unexpected social progressiveness might at first appear a bait-and-switch on the part of Stoller and Rogen (et al), luring in the film’s target audience with the franchise’s stoner-frat brand, and then using it as a teaching moment: basic feminism for bros via dick jokes. I expect that the reality involved a far less heroic learning moment and a touch of introspection. Speaking to The Guardian last week, Rogen admitted that the blue humour in some of his previous films, the kind of light misogyny and gay panic that might have seemed tolerable in 2008, won’t fly anymore. The Apatow Chapter frat-pack comedy is predicated on arrested development; a failure to grow up, getting away with childsplay under the guise of ignorance.
Making a feminist comedy in an institution built on the backs of man-children and their ideas of humour makes things complicated, but comedy thrives on complication, and Bad Neighbours 2 is glaring proof that complicating a predominantly white male genre gives fresh life to a stagnant field. More identity fodder, more topicality, and more opportunity for real social subversiveness. The times they are a-changin’, and here is a frat comedy with a gender-balanced main cast, a non-judgemental gay wedding and nary a frat boy in sight — a comedy more progressive than the country it’s screening in. I guess this is growing up.
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