“What’s escrow?” Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A couple of years ago, I really kinda hated the movie Neighbors with Zac Efron and Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen. I mean it got under my skin and creeped me out and gave me a stomachache because I couldn’t understand why people liked it so much. In that sense, it was probably more effective than I accepted at the time.

Yet, somehow I still found myself drawn to its sequel, the recently released Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. I had a profoundly unexpected reaction to this film, a movie that I would’ve otherwise suspected to be a completely superfluous studio money grab: I adored it. It is as crude and toxic as its predecessor, yet somehow is a perfectly redemptive bookend. Neighbors 2 is a counterpoint to its predecessor’s bromantic orgy of debauchery. It is a rowdy feminist anthem for acceptance and tolerance with a firm belief that, no matter how ugly life gets, anyone and anything can be saved (not in the religious sense but in the humanistic one).

As before, Rose Byrne is the secret weapon, her flinty worry creating comic sparks in the most absurd circumstances. Rogen does fine being Rogen, but he is aided and abetted by Byrne’s ability to be grounded and believable and cartoonish all in the same instance. You believe Byrne is a caring parent, a fretful homeowner, and a person striving for relevance in a world that can’t wait to leave us all in the dust. She’s magic.

And then there is Zac Efron. Not long ago, if you’d asked me if he could mature beyond a dreamy-eyed slab of beef into a thoughtful, nuanced actor, I would have given you a definitive “no.” How wrong I was. He is so poignant in this film, with a deft, surgically precise comic touch – the rare alchemy that can only happen when a character is played at the crossroads of disaffected heartbreak and well-intentioned vacuousness.  If Montgomery Clift and Judy Holliday had had a love child, it would be Efron’s character Teddy in this movie. He beautifully captures the nauseous yearning everyone feels with the passing of the comfortable, bohemian structure of college days. Efron’s Teddy is the little boy lost fraternity brother who had put so much of his energy and time into building superficially “timeless” bonds that he now is completely bewildered by the cruel, corrosive velocity of adulthood.

Through this lens, we are introduced to a sorority that moves in next door to Rogen and Byrne, causing no end of formulaic mischief, duplicating the narrative arc of the prior film. In this go-round, though, the story is shot through with a bold sense of millennial feminism, the kind of kids who want independence and tolerance, but don’t understand how vile their ageist, tech-obsessed lifestyles can be.

Chloe Grace Moretz is the sorority ringleader, and she is the perfect foil for Efron, who initially serves as house advisor to the girls. Moretz carries the same optimistic arrogance and uncertain certainty that Efron projected in the last film, with a sense of urgency and wrongheaded-determination that propels the film as her sorority sisters proceed to torture Rogen and Byrne. You see, the young couple are selling their cute bungalow to upgrade to a cookie cutter dream home, but have no idea that, when their current home is in “escrow,” the incoming buyers have 30 days to back out of the deal (if say, a sorority moves in next door and trashes the place). The film does such a fabulous job lightly skewering the hipster “mommy and daddy” culture, one foot stuck in their own college days and the other in a highly mortgaged plastic grave.

Dave Franco appears again as Efron’s best friend and fraternity brother, and there is a gently sweet subplot of Franco’s engagement to his longtime boyfriend, with Efron seamlessly stepping into the role of best man and abandoned confidante. There is a lovely “why is this a big deal?” to their interactions that bespeaks an American evolution that should give us all hope.

The film is plenty crass, with a boatload of cringe-worthy moments, but I found it such a loving and inclusive enterprise, as if someone had taken the blueprint from Neighbors and overlaid it with a healthy dose of Bridesmaids, that I am still smiling. I suspect my opinion will run counter to that of many fans of these sorts of films because we are living in a country that continues to see women as frightening, as something “other” to be ridiculed, demeaned, and contained. This film turns that wrongheaded notion on its head, unleashing the unapologetically jubilant female id and reminding us that we are all humans, frightened of what tomorrow may bring, attempting to enjoy whatever happiness we can today. #ImWithHer

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Zac-Efron-32Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.  My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Goodbye, Troy Bolton – Neighbors

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Neighbors – the new movie starring Seth Rogen and Zac Efron – made me uncomfortable. I don’t mean that it was a bad film, but it sure as heck made me uneasy for its 90 minute running time.

This is both credit and critique.

The awful things the characters do to each other are unpredictable and mean and escalate with nightmarish abandon. It’s just that this is not my idea of a fun Saturday night at the movies.

I love me some outre comedies – from Bad Santa to Bridesmaids to this year’s Bad Words – and Neighbors, directed by Nicholas Stoller (writer of the last two Muppets movies!?), is as crass and crude as they come … but mostly the flick just managed to set my teeth on edge with not nearly enough laugh out loud moments.

Whereas the other aforementioned films use their gross out gags in service to the story (and to illustrate the renegade qualities of relatable characters who live in the margins), Neighbors seems to follow the rhythms of a horror movie, seeking to shock and awe rather than to humanize.

The high/low-concept relates the trauma of a young, hipster, entitled couple who move into a precious arts-and-crafts bungalow only to find their new neighbors arrive in a haze of 24/7 fraternity bacchanalia. We all know this couple, portrayed by Rogen (doing that same adenoidal foghorn thing he always does) and Rose Byrne (one of the best things in the spiky enterprise) – a pair of suburban survivalists who overuse words like “awesome,” who brag about their use of recreational drugs while obsessing about the latest Baby Bjorn-parenting-r-us techniques, and who sport t-shirts emblazoned with ironic Gen X catch phrases.

On the other hand, the frat boys, led by alpha wolf Efron and his charming chief lieutenant Dave Franco (James’ brother) are uber-millennials for whom the challenges of college seem to consist of how, who, where, and when to plan their next drug-fueled, techno-soundtracked, social media-documented rager. Sitcom-esque conflict ensues.

Do Byrne’s and Rogen’s characters just want a little peace-and-quiet for their baby daughter or are they caught in a disastrous spiral of trying to stay relevant and “hot” in the eyes of a youth culture that devours its own for breakfast?

There is a potent social commentary buried somewhere in this film, and it glimmers periodically – in the bureaucratic tomfoolery of Lisa Kudrow’s gonzo dean of students whose chief desire is to avoid bad PR and to keep her well-paying university gig or in the dissipated pretty boy bullying of Efron, a dim bulb freaked out that his prince-of-the-campus days are rapidly drawing to a close.

Ultimately, Neighbors captures a sweaty bad dream for those of us caught between our fraternity days and our mortgage-paying mid-life. But it’s chief accomplishment will be in shifting the rudderless career of Efron from bland all-American heartthrob (a role that never quite suited him) to comically creepy, beautiful sociopath. This turn fits him like a glove. Here’s hoping he gets another chance to explore this newfound niche. Goodbye, High School Musical‘s Troy Bolton. And good riddance.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

 

If, like me, you still have your Atari 2600 in the basement: Wreck-It Ralph

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Does Disney’s latest animated foray Wreck-It Ralph live up to the peppy pixelated promise of its retro fun trailer? Not quite. Is it an enjoyable pre-holiday diversion with a lot of heart to accompany its endlessly merchandisable premise? Absolutely.

A shameless amalgam of Disney’s own Toy Story, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Tron, this film deftly imagines a world in which video game characters (from across thirty years of canon beloved by Gens X & Y, Millennials, and beyond) live, laugh, argue, and play after the neighborhood video arcade takes its last round of quarters for the evening. Clever touches and pop cultural references abound, with the Donkey Kong-esque titular character Ralph, warmly voiced by the ever-reliable John C. Reilly, trying to shake off three decades of villainy to gain acceptance from his digital cohorts.

The film has a bit of a rambling quality that occasionally makes it seem longer than its brief 90-minute running time. However, all threads add up to a meaningful and (nearly) moving denouement. As Ralph ventures across a number of video game settings in search of exoneration, he meets a cast of fully-realized, quirkily lovable characters voiced beautifully by the likes of Jane Lynch, Sarah Silverman, Alan Tudyk (sounding eerily like Alan Sues, who portrayed a very similar character in 1977’s Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure), Jack McBrayer, and Edie McClurg.

The movie is fun but not overly funny, warm but not always engaging, clever but not always smart. If, like me, you still have your Atari 2600 in the basement…if, on a rainy day, you plug it in for a heated round of Frogger…if you have ever wondered what those miraculous constructs of “1”s and “0”s are up to when said console is on its shelf, then, you will bask in the arcade-lit glow of Wreck-It Ralph. However, you will probably also reflect back on how much more robust were your own childhood imaginings of characters like Q*Bert or Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde.

P.S. Making Wreck-It Ralph a must-see is the animated short that precedes it: Paperman. A gorgeously black-and-white, seamless blend of traditional and computer animation, the piece tells the tale of a young man smitten with a young woman he briefly meets at a train station and how he reconnects with her through the persistent, magical aid of a fleet of pesky paper airplanes. Sounds silly? You bet. Will the music and the lovingly drawn characters bring a tear to your eye? Count on it.