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Non-Review Review: Bad Neighbours

Bad Neighbours is a serviceable – if unexceptional – comedy. The story of two young parents engaged in a turf war with the college fraternity next door, Bad Neighbours feels somewhat slight, even for its abbreviated ninety-seven minute runtime. The laughs are there, and the movie never outstays its welcome, but there’s a sense that the film spends a considerable amount of its runtime in neutral – ramping up for some wonderful sequences, but never building enough momentum to truly take off.

So you think you can dance...

So you think you can dance…

Perhaps what’s most surprising about Nicholas Stoller’s latest effort is how dark the comedy goes, how it embraces and pushes the idea of the immature manchild comedy protagonist to its logical conclusion; almost as a deconstruction of the typical Judd Atapow protagonist. To be fair, this isn’t too much of a surprise from Stoller. Forgetting Sarah Marshall toyed with deconstruction of the typical romantic comedy tropes, setting up a “getting back together” comedy only to chip it apart. (Albeit substituting in another conventional romance in its second half.)

Bad Neighbours takes the petty fratboy mentality associated with modern comedic protagonists and critically applies it to a young family. The Radners are a young couple with a young daughter struggling to come to terms with their maturity – going through something akin to a quarter- or third-life crisis. Uncomfortably confronting the realities that come with a child and mortgage, the couple find themselves fighting off their inevitable maturity.

Bad Neighbours is a relatively slight film. Running just over an hour-and-a-half, it never outstays its welcome. Indeed, its brevity is quite endearing in this era of over-extended summer films. The movie never stretches its somewhat slight premise to breaking point, never pushing any of its characters or situations to a point where they outstay their welcome. The movie keeps pushing forward at a decide speed, with an pace that isn’t quite ruthless, but is never indulgent.

The end is DeNiro...

The end is DeNiro…

The movie’s path – and its character arcs – are all satisfactorily linear. The various members of the cast find themselves assessing their situation and facing their futures. The characters are introduced before the plot gets properly going, with the movie making sure we know enough about the characters before the crazy stuff starts unfolding. We’re teased with a mountain of fireworks in the first act, aware that they must inevitably pay off in the third act.

However, the most interesting structural aspect of Bad Neighbours is that it plays with audience expectations. Given the premise, one might expect the film to side with the Radners. They are a young middle-class couple with a child trying to cope with the obnoxious fraternity that have moved in next door. However, what’s surprising about Bad Neighbours is that it almost seems harsher in its assessment of the Radners.

While the actions of the fraternity are excessive and over-blown, and certainly not mature, there’s a sense of sympathy for them. Surprisingly, fraternity president Teddy Sanders comes across as the most sympathetic character in the piece. Sure, he’s impulsive and petty and aggressive, but that’s all rooted in the sort of immaturity to be expected from a person on the cusp of adulthood. Teddy is portrayed as relatively innocent and even naive – one of those college kids with a low GPA, no real prospects and no real engagement with his education.

Cue immature joke about "hot meat"...

Cue immature joke about “hot meat”…

His pettiness and vindictiveness are understandable. His childishness is almost excusable by virtue of the fact that he is practically a child. Over the course of Bad Neighbours, we watch Teddy buy wholeheartedly into the sort of fraternity nonsense that even his Vice-President has outgrown, struggle with interpersonal relationships, and face the fact that he has absolutely no idea what the next step in his life is meant to be. Zac Efron is surprisingly charming as Teddy, making him a character who is comprehensible, even as he’s antagonistic.

(Of course, there’s a bigger argument to be had about what this says about portrayals of college in mainstream cinema – whether it should exist as an environment where a person like Teddy can just coast through to the end of his degree without showing any real engagement on his part or earning an experience. Still, that’s a debate on the nature of third-level education probably best left for another time.)

Teddy arguably gets the movie’s most significant moments of basic decency, punctuated as they are with the same aggressiveness on display from the rest of the cast. In contrast, the film seems less likely to indulge the Radners in their childishness. In contrast to Teddy, who has yet to leave the protective womb of college, the Radners are adults. They have a child and a house. While the fraternity’s pranks are aggressive and reckless, the schemes launched by the Radners seem actively malicious.

Beating around the bush...

Beating around the bush…

The couple passive-aggressively cause water-damage to the foundation and seek to seriously undermine the friendships within the fraternity. t is worth noting that the fraternity shows more concern and unease at possibly damaging the Radners’ marriage than the Radners do undermining relationships and friendships. While the fraternity seems quite fond of the Radners’ baby, and the risk to the child is a result of recklessness or lack of forethought, the Radners actively scheme to trick Teddy into “hazing the sh!t out of” a weak and vulnerable member of the fraternity.(Teddy disarms this potential threat by being a reasonable and level-headed human being.)

As such, Bad Neighbours is a surprisingly dark and cynical comedy. The only real problem with this approach is that the movie never quite follows through on this rather cynical perspective. The movie comes with a coda that seems grafted on to assure viewers that everything is perfectly fine – everything worked out reasonably okay at the end, just in case it seems like any of the characters might have gone a little bit too far in this petty squabble.

The cast of Bad Neighbours is reasonably solid. Efron and Rogan make effective leads, even if their thunder is stolen a little buy their supporting leads. Rose Byrne does a wonderful job as Mrs. Radner, providing suitably game for the film’s more juvenile humour. (The film scores bonus points for drawing attention to – and playing with – the cliché that the wife is supposed to be the “mature one” in the stereotypical manchild relationship.) Dave Franco is also charming as the Vice-President of the college fraternity.

There goes the neighbourhood...

There goes the neighbourhood…

Bad Neighbours is solid, if not quite as exceptional as it might have been. The movie has a surprisingly dark side to it, and there’s a sense that the movie might have been a bit stronger were it willing to engage with that aspect a bit more, and play it out to its logical conclusion. Instead, the result is a well-made comedy that isn’t overflowing with laughs, but never outstays its welcome.

2 Responses

  1. Great review.

    I think I liked the film more that you did but I agree with all your points. I have to say I was pretty impressed by Efron. The trailers really did not reveal how morally gray this film would be.

    • Efron is very good, isn’t he? He actually gives Teddy layers and makes him much more interesting than he might otherwise be.

      Maybe I was a bit harsh on Bad Neighbours. I did like a lot about it. I just didn’t laugh that much.

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