By Amy Nicholson, Devin Faraci and Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 8, 2014 at 3:3PM
Critical Crossfire is Indiewire’s recurring column in which two critics from our Criticwire Network discuss topics in current cinema with Indiewire critic Eric Kohn. This week, L.A. Weekly's Amy Nicholson trades e-mails with Badass Digest's Devin Faraci on "Neighbors," which opens this Friday, and the general state of American comedy.
A week ago, the Film Society of Lincoln Center honored filmmaker Rob Reiner at its annual Chaplin gala, which brought back memories of warm-hearted eighties comedies like "When Harry Met Sally" and "The Princess Bride." Now comes "Neighbors," which was met with great acclaim following its SXSW premiere for uniting Seth Rogen and Zac Efron in an uber-raunchy bro comedy that seems to have delighted people exactly because of that: It's got some bite to it. But that same perspective made wonder if audiences have been trained on more recent comedies to expect as much. Are today's mainstream comedies too crude? Or does "Neighbors" somehow transcend those expectations and spin them in a fresh way?
DEVIN FARACI: You'd think that since this a frat comedy that "Neighbors" would be just a fart-scented boy's club, but I think there's more happening in the film than that. And I think that there's more happening in a lot of the Apatow-adjacent movies than just crudeness. I wouldn't even say they're particularly mean-spirited, as most of the Seth Rogen films have, at their core, been about the value of human relationships. Even "This Is the End," which brutally kills off much of its cast, ends with a big dance number in heaven with everybody happy.
I'd go so far as to say that "Neighbors" repudiates the mean-spiritedness in a big way. I don't want to get into spoilers here, but the arc of the movie is one that tends towards forgiveness and understanding. The stops along the way can be crude and filled with dick jokes, but that's like the lives of all the great saints - sometimes you have to have a baby chew on a condom before you get canonized.
AMY NICHOLSON: I've been thinking a lot about Hollywood comedies lately, in part because I'm worried they're teetering on temporary extinction. In the last three decades, Hollywood romantic comedies -- the rare ones that exist -- have definitely gotten cruder, a devolution that I honestly think doesn't so much reflect a cultural, sexual shift as much as the studios' paranoia that movies about love and monogamy aren't cool. (For my money, people in the '60s were probably having more sex than all of us.) The nadir -- at least, to date-- is "The Ugly Truth," which should have been subtitled "Two Sociopaths Hate-Fucking." Maybe "Walk of Shame" is worse, not that Focus Features gave critics the chance to find out.
Actual comedies, however, haven't gotten cruder. They're just dumber. Instead of sharp dialogue, it's all about shocks, pratfalls, and the celebration of the stoner hero who might stumble into doing funny stuff, but couldn't crack a joke if his favorite bong's life depended on it. I'd say, "actual comedies like 'Neighbors,'" but I agree with Devin that "Neighbors" is pretty damned good even though on the surface it's a lot like the comedies I just complained about. Seth Rogen, Zac Efron and Rose Byrne's characters aren't witty like Billy Crystal's Harry. They're just normal people doing moronic things for our amusement. Are the actors less talented? Hell no. Byrne is amazing -- I'd love to see her get a crack at the scripts that made Meg Ryan a star. But the source of the laughs has changed.
Of course, it's kinda unfair to compare "Neighbors" -- a solid summer hitter -- to "When Harry Met Sally," one of the greatest comedies of all time. Let's compare it to its '80s sibling: "Revenge of the Nerds." I'd say "Neighbors" is less ambitious, more progressive, and equally funny. Yet will we remember it in 30 years?
Amy's passing reference to "Walk of Shame" brings up another point: the apparent lack — or at least the marginalization — of strong female comedies. It's beginning to look like "Bridesmaids" was something of an anomaly. You mention Rose Byrne in "Neighbors," and even if she's hilarious in the movie, she's not exactly a prominent figure in the movie's one-sheet. Do marketing materials need their own version of the Bechdel Test? And speaking of 30 years from now, are there any hints among today's bigger comedies that we'll be seeing a broader representation of Americans in really funny stuff sometime soon?
AN: Ooof. That "Neighbors" poster is part of the problem -- you wouldn't know Rose Byrne was in the movie until you were six-inches away and wearing bifocals. I don't know what's worse: that the studio doesn't think Rose Byrne deserves to be on the poster, or if the studio just assumes that she can't sell tickets. (Actually, the worst is if the studio's assumption is right.)
I love that Byrne actually gets to drive the comedy in "Neighbors." She doesn't just observe and applaud -- she's an equal third of the ensemble and right in the center of the action. And, alas, totally invisible in the marketing.
What's funny is "Neighbors" is unusually self-aware about comedy's female problem. It barely passes the Bedchel Test, but there's a whole conversation between Byrne and Rogen about how annoyed she is that he expects her to be the responsible one. After he yelps, "We can't both be the Kevin James," she storms off and says, "Go find your nagging wife that you want to find." If he wants to find one, he can just go to the movies -- that's only kind of wife we ever see. Think Leslie Mann in "This is 40" screaming at Paul Rudd to stop eating cupcakes.
It's been exactly three years since "Bridesmaids" was released and we still haven't seen the predicted "Bridesmaids" bounce. In 36 months, the major studios have only launched two female-driven ensemble comedies: The Heat and last weekend's "The Other Woman." I think it's pretty telling that the latter, which isn't even that good, opened at number one at the box office. The audience is out there. And it's telling that "The Heat," which made its money back five times over, was also directed by "Bridesmaids'" Paul Feig, who seems to be the only one who really gets it. The studios sure don't. In an interview this March, Feig told me, "I've been lectured so many times by producers and people in power, 'You don't want to get pigeonholed in the whole woman thing.'"
But, hey. I'm just a woman like 51% of the people on earth -- you know, the minority. I'm curious to hear how men see female-driven comedies? Are they flukes, turn-offs, or "women things"? Let's be honest: How eager are you to buy a ticket to a movie with Rose Byrne on the poster?
DF: The marketing problem is a complex one. Audiences have been trained for decades to expect certain things out of movies that feature women on the poster. Is that fair? Is it right? No, but it's the truth. I'm happy that "Neighbors" has Rose Byrne strong, funny and - most importantly - just as dumb and goofy as the men in the film, and I'll take that over prominent poster placement (for now). The sad reality is that women will go see a movie with no woman on the poster, but the more central you make a woman in the marketing the more you turn off men.
Which is dumb, especially as we're hitting something of a female comedy golden age on television. "Broad City," "Inside Amy Schumer," "The Mindy Project," "Parks and Recreation" - these are all shows with female powerhouses at the center and they're all very funny. The thing about change is that it's incremental, but it's happening all around us right now. I think that there's such an enormous crop of female comedic talent that there's no way the patriarchy can keep them out of movie theaters.
And they're getting in from every direction - I'll be seeing "Obvious Child" this week, and I've heard nothing but raves about Jenny Slate's film.
As for Amy's question...I guess it all depends on the female on the poster. Drew Barrymore on the poster of "Blended" certainly doesn't sell me a ticket to that crap.
Setting aside how studios choose to sell movies, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on how these movies sell us on personalities. There may be no finer illustration of the "Neighbors" appeal than its third act image of Rogen and Efron standing side to side, bare-chested, like two sides of the same equation: What makes you go see a movie -- the brawny bro or the chubby schlub? And if the answer is "both," what does that mean for everything else? I'm glad Devin mentions "Obvious Child" since that points to the next question I have for you: "Obvious Child" might be a relative commercial success when A24 puts it out, but it was produced on a low budget outside the studio system — unlike "Neighbors."
So "Neighbors" is a good time, but is it the only kind of comedy that studios can do well these days? Is television truly a more liberated arena?
DF: The studio system today is ill-suited for comedy just because the nature of modern studio filmmaking inflates the budgets of these films to such an extent they have to be big hits to be successes. Comedies can - and should, I think - be cheap, but try making a movie for under $15 million at Universal, and that's before they start marketing it.
And I think that's super cool! We're living in a landscape no longer dominated by studios. The studios used to make everything, but they're not very good at that anymore, and so the making of good comedies will begin to fall to the smaller players. There will always be big studio comedies - somebody has to pay for Adam Sandler to take a vacation to Africa - but the really good stuff is going to get made differently. I'm OK with that, and I believe the indie/VOD world is exciting and healthy. And that world seems to have created a nice symbiotic bond with the big movies - you can make your mortgage on a superhero film and then go star in a gentle Sundance comedy for which you get paid in craft service.
As for television - I think it's the same as it ever was. There are great studio comedies from the past, but there are just as many absolutely terrible ones (and often overblown ones). American comedy has always been about vaudeville, which means it's also always been about radio and then television. All of my favorite studio comedies come from people who started in television or vaudeville, and just as the Marx Brothers eventually fell off so will the disciples of Apatow (who started in television) and they'll be replaced by somebody who is currently writing an amazing television show. Or maybe a great YouTube show, which is the next reincarnation of vaudeville. So to me, television comedy is always better than movie comedy, but the best from television go on to often make the best movie comedies.
AN: Jeez, Devin. Why does everything have to circle back to your love of Tim Allen?
I think comedy is in a weird place. Both on television and in theaters, it's melded with drama to become this blurry monster that wants to be all things for all audiences: gravitas with laughs. When done well, you get "Obvious Child," which is fantastic for a movie with a five-minute stretch where a guy farts in a girl's face and then knocks her up with an unwanted baby. When done badly, it's like "Pineapple Express," which I can't forgive for thinking that mass slaughter is funny.
Comedy budgets got so big because the studios stupidly, stubbornly rely on expensive stars. But for comedies, it's premise -- not personalities -- that sell tickets. Sure, "Grown Ups" made $270 million by cramming Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Kevin James and all of their drinking buddies into a movie. But the first "Hangover" made $200 million more, and when it opened no one knew Zach Galfianakis from a homeless guy on the street.
"The Hangover" didn't need stars -- it had a great hook. I've seen "Grown Ups" and can't tell you a single plot point. (Kevin James falling down doesn't count.) Did "The Hangover" inspire Hollywood to make more semi-cheap, high-concept comedies? Of course not. Warner Bros. just forced the franchise to follow the Sandler model: bigger budgets and more reliance on their now-famous cast for a dwindling box office return. It learned the wrong lesson, just like it did from "Bridesmaids." Instead of realizing that audiences want smart, innovative comedies, it took break-out talents Galifianakis and McCarthy and shoved them into dumb, star-driven slapstick.
I'd like to see comedy learn from what horror -- another genre that's all about the pitch -- has done right. When "Paranormal Activity" proved that a studio could earn major money by scouting cheap new talents, it changed the game: a huge chunk of this generation's most ambitious and innovative filmmakers are making horror flicks, and great dramatic actors like Ethan Hawke and Vera Farmiga and, yes, Rose Byrne — to bring this all back around — are choosing to star in them for next-to-no money. We're living in a renaissance where horror movies can be both playful and prestigious, experimental and profitable.
Of course, horror has an audience -- and a festival circuit -- that keeps these filmmakers' careers alive. Where's comedy's fan base? Watching "Louie" on cable? Why do I still suspect that even if "Obvious Child" makes a ton of money, that won't change anything?
DF: "The Hangover" is actually a good example of the studios learning the wrong lessons, with "The Hangover Part III" being so expensive and so bad and making so little.
The "Paranormal Activity" stuff doesn't quite work in comedy; comedy is brand-oriented, with the comedian (or writer) being the brand. It's due to comedy being so deeply subjective, I think - people understand they think This Guy is funny, so they'll go see all of This Guy's movies. A movie that is aping This Guy's schtick is less appealing because it feels off-brand. Horror's brands are all about types -- haunted house, demon possession, slasher -- as to opposed to any one personality.
And this, really, is why comedy isn't an ideal fit for the big studios, who have to go as broad as possible. The best comedies aren't ones that everybody gets; the really good, smart comedies appeal to a niche, and if everything works out the mainstream finds that niche (see Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, whose "Freaks and Geeks" wasn't a hit but is maybe the foundation of modern mainstream comedy). Kevin James sells tickets, but his movies are garbage. But again -- same as it ever was. There are great comedies from the past, but there are also insert-your-large-measurement-scale-here of terrible, lowest common denominator pieces of junk intended to fill the second half of a double feature.
Comedy's fanbase is, I think, also same as it ever was. Everybody likes to laugh. The problem becomes when studios - who fire shotguns, not sniper rifles - try to make everybody laugh.
AN: Eh, I think horror is as subjective as comedy. Some people like gore, others like jumps. Some people only dig psychological terror, others only go for stuff that teeters on slapstick. And there's definitely personalities attached -- why else would Wes Craven name a film "Wes Craven's New Nightmare"?
I'm more optimistic than you that the studios are going to come around. I just think they're going to do it accidentally. For every stumble forward ("Bridesmaids," the first "Hangover"), they stand up, cheer at the money they tripped over, and then take a half-step back.
Right now, I'm feeling like the studios are my mom and I just picked up my mom from a rehab center for heroin. (Sidenote: My real life mom is not addicted to heroin.) Even though I know better, I'm cautiously optimistic: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are in pre-production for a new movie, Paul Feig has been shooting a spy flick with Rose Byrne. And the conversation about comedy -- especially women in comedy -- isn't just happening between us, but all over the internet. Maybe I'm a Pollyanna, but I keep thinking that if the audience who wants to see better comedies stays vocal, shuns stupid movies, and supports the ones we want to see succeed that someday Hollywood will pay attention. OK, typing that out, I'm definitely a Pollyanna, but so be it.
If I ran a studio (and this is why I'll never be asked to run a studio), I'd take 100 of the funniest, hungriest writers in town, pay them $50K a year, and hire them to hammer away at their laptops like a roomful of Shakespeare's monkeys. It'd cost 1/36th of the $180 million Sony spent just on marketing "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," and maybe you'd find the next Mel Brooks. Then I'd take the 35/36ths of the advertising budget I had left over and shoot the best six scripts. If even one was a "Hangover"-sized hit, we win.
Of course, there's gotta be something I'm missing, so it's good I don't run a studio. At least as critics, you and I can say: "Hey, 'Neighbors' is pretty great -- and if you like how it showcased Rose Byrne, help spread the word."