Zac Efron's 'Neighbors' Isn't Necessarily a Feminist Film, But It's Moving in the Right Direction
Neon flashing lights, a sea of red plastic cups, gratuitous ways to ingest weed, a bounty of scantily-clad women, and oodles upon oodles of phallic imagery. You've seen the promos, and you know exactly what you're getting into with Nicholas Stoller's latest comedy, Neighbors. The film brought in $51 million opening weekend, stealing the fourth most successful debut for an R-rated comedy ever. But is Neighbors, which was heavily influenced by fraternity stereotypes, anything more than an enjoyable yet raunchy bro-fest? Actually, it absolutely was.
Not only did Neighbors deliver laughs, messages about the importance of family (whether that family is blood-related or a brotherhood), and huge heart, it also offered up some interesting questions regarding traditional family roles.
Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne play a couple with a newborn baby, whose lives are disrupted when a rowdy gang of boys carrying giant Greek letters move in next door. The push and pull between the couple and the fraternity's president, played by Zac Efron, comes to an unbearable peak when Rogen and Byrne's characters find their marriage crumbling.
"Haven't you ever seen a Kevin James movie?" Rogen's Mac retorts. "I'm Kevin James." Kevin James of course, is famous for playing the clueless yet lovable oaf, who somehow winds up with a half-way decent job, albeit being dimwitted, and a smokin' hot wife, albeit having a potbelly and a lack of manners. He is the human man-child, the toddler trapped in a middle-aged man's body. He wants for food and fun and laughs and sex, and responsibility is his kryptonite.
But thanks to Byrne's Kelly, the notion of her husband turning into Kevin James is squashed upon inception. "What if I want to be Kevin James?" she asks. "I have a little Kevin James in me." The couple argues, and Kelly states that she has just as much claim as her husband to be the irresponsible one. Just because she's a mother, doesn't mean it is her duty to be the caretaker, the gatekeeper, and the one to fix the couple's problems.
This dialogue is a huge success for the film. In a flick otherwise oozing with archetypes and the nth quip about dildos, this conversation provides a healthy realization to the Mac-like men of the world: Women are just as likely to screw up and be ill-equipped to raise a child. Women don't necessarily want to pick up more pieces of the relationship than is her share, and women are allowed to be careless, clueless, and silly. Women are not the "fixers", as Neighbors points out, and shouldn't be labeled as such. So let's offer a huge cheers to a bro-comedy for beginning the necessary discourse.
And while this scene alone does not a feminist movie make, there are other clues that may point to a lady-friendly film. While the party sequences (and yes, there are many) highlight a profusion of beer slinging and naked breasts, Rose Byrne's topless scene elicits an opposite reaction. After the couple's night of partying at the fraternity, Byrne goes to breastfeed her child, only after Mac intervenes, warning her breast milk is likely infused with alcohol, and would be like feeding their child a white Russian. Kelly's excess breast milk causes her pain, and she insists Mac "milk her."
The rest of the scene plays out like you would imagine, with milk maid jokes aplenty, and milk squirting in the eyes of Rogen (surely, no one saw this one coming). But the triumph in this scene, comes from the fact that while the scene focuses on Byrne's exposed breasts, they are anything but sexualized. Bruised and being held in by a breastfeeding strap, they aren't the stuff of a hip-hop music video or an X-rated magazine shoot. They are the boobs of motherhood, and like men's penises are often used for comedic relief, so were Byrne's ladies. Some may call it in poor taste, and perhaps it was, but it was also unabashedly funny, and refreshing to see a woman use her most sexual body part for the sake of comedy, instead of arousal.
Neighbors is far from the perfect feminist film, and we didn't expect it to be. What we did find however, was a surprising amount of respect for Kelly's character, due in large part to a tremendously written script, supportive male leads, and of course, the brilliant acting prowess of Rose Byrne. And let's not forget that 53% of opening weekend audiences were female.
Neighbors is in theatres across the U.S. now.