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?