ANNOYING, ANNOYINGER, ANNOYINGEST: Neighbors and Locke


Neighbors-Movie-Review-Image-6I remember seeing the semi-classic frat comedy Animal House when it opened some thirty-six years ago (god, thirty-six years, excuse me while I go shoot myself). I can still recall Bluto, played by John Belushi, screaming, “Christ. Seven years of college down the drain”.
I don’t think that I will have any such memory of the new frat comedy Neighbors.
Yes, that’s right, dear readers. I did not care for this film. That officially makes me, I suppose, the fuddy duddy party pooper Mr. Wilson who has lost all sense of humor and does nothing but scream at little kids to get off his lawn. But it’s true. Neighbors never remotely worked for me.

 

Neighbors is a story about a group of very annoying people moving in next door to a very, very, very, very, very annoying couple with a newborn. And believe me, it takes a special sort of aggravation to defeat a fraternity in an annoyance competition. But Mac and Kelly (played by Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne in an improvisational style that only made their conversations less and less realistic and more and more annoying—there’s that word again—as they went on) just gave me the hackles from the moment they appeared on screen.

 

It’s the sort of movie that if it isn’t working for you, most of the time all you’re doing is pointing out all the plot issues, like a policeman who actually told the frat who called in a complaint on them anonymously (no, really, he did this, I’m not lying) and Mac and Kelly being the only people on the block not to be ­­­­upset at their new next door frat brats (and the explanation given as to why is just a bit too much on th­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­e feeble and lacking in imagination side).

 

I didn’t even understand what insane asylum would give this group of semi-arsonists the filthy lucre to buy a new den of iniquity (or in layman’s terms, what bank would give a frat that burned down their last house a mortgage to buy a new one).

 

Of course one might say that if those sorts of things bothered me, then I just didn’t get the joke.

 

To which I replay: no, I got the joke. I just didn’t find it funny. Sorry, Dennis.

 

It probably also didn’t help that the writers (Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien) gave both sets of characters the same goals and character arcs. Mac and Kelly have to learn how to become adults and leave their party day younger selves behind them forever while in contrast, Teddy and Pete, the fratsters (Zac Efron and Dave Franco) have to…learn how to become adults and leave their party days younger selves behind them forever.

 

When it comes to Teddy and Pete, yeah, sure, okay that makes sense (and there’s a nice scene at a job fair where Teddy is basically called too stupid to apply for any of the jobs and another one where Pete has to break it to Teddy that like Santa Clause, frats are ultimately an illusion and Teddy throws a tantrum just like any pre-teen would). But for Mac and Kelly? They’re really just a bit too long in the tooth for such a journey to be anything but pathetic. In fact, there were times I wanted Social Services called in to whisk their baby away.

 

It’s also the sort of film where everyone’s motivations have to be explained to them by another character, otherwise there’s no way the audience would be able to figure it out on their own.

 

The only really effective scenes are the ones with the college Dean, played by the wonderful Lisa Kudrow (one of our most underrated actresses) using her faux Bryn Mawr upper crust voice (and deep dish crust to boost). She gets her laughs just by doing the scene simply and to the point.

 

In the end, the most interesting aspect of the film might just be the subtext of male/male homoerotic relationships. For the frat, they seem to have little issue with relating to each other sexually and emotionally on a level that for earlier generations would be seen as deeply suspicious. But for Seth Rogen, he’s still at the level where anything remotely gay is still snickeringly nasty and disgusting.

 

Directed by Nicholas Stoller.

 

Now pardon me while I go yell at some kids to get off my lawn.

 

Locke-2014-01In 1895 Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called If that begins “If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you” and continues on in this manner until it ends with “you’ll be a Man, my son”.

 

I thought of this while watching Locke, the new drama written and directed by Steven Knight who, as a writer, has given us the good (Dirty Pretty Things), the bad (Amazing Grace) and the handsome (Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises). I thought of this because I was constantly struck by an irony: the more Locke keeps his head while everyone around him loses theirs, the less of a man he becomes.

 

Locke is not having a good day. He’s in his car heading for London. He wants to be there for the birth of his child by a woman he had a one night stand with seven months earlier.

 

And if that’s not bad enough, the child is two months premature. And if that’s not bad enough, it’s on the night before he has to supervise the largest pouring of concrete for a building outside of a military operation. And if that’s not bad enough, he’s almost indispensable when it comes to this procedure (and if it goes wrong, the cost could be in the millions—MILLIONS). And if that’s not bad enough, he accidentally took an important file with him that has all the instructions for what to do so the person in charge now is without. And if that’s not bad enough, things go wrong, like a road not getting approval for being closed, etc. And if that’s not bad enough, the woman giving birth has absolutely no friends and no family to help her through this. And if that’s not bad enough, he has to tell his wife. And if that’s not bad enough, the birth is having complications because the umbilical cord is wrapped around the baby’s neck, requiring a Caesarian.

 

Wow. As Birdie Coonan said about Eve Harrington’s tale of woe in All About Eve: “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end”.

 

Oh, wait, I forgot. And if all that’s not bad enough, he also has a cold (guild the lily much?).

 

In many ways, I think that Knight has done something very interesting here. He has created a minimalist story (you know, a story that takes place in one location, in a short time period, with few characters like Buried, Moon, Open Water) that in many ways works on its own terms. It’s very well done, rather well acted, and achieves a lot within the smallness of its environment.

 

(Though I should say I have somewhat ambivalent feelings toward this new minimalist movement in movies—when it works, it works, of course. No problem. But why do I often get the feeling that the reason why it’s so popular for filmmakers now is the same reason that plays became more and more minimalist—not because this was a dramatically compelling way to tell a story, but because it’s the only way to raise enough money to make a film…any film.)

 

I mean, it’s obvious that Knight is a rather talented writer.

 

But how you react to Locke may very well depend on how you react to the character himself and the choices he makes. On one hand, I admire his taking responsibility for what he did and that he is confessing all, letting the chips fall where they may.

 

And I have to be honest: my moments of most admiration for him is when he kept deflating the woman and refusing to say he loved her or accept her declarations of love, as well as reiterating to the hospital that he was not the next of kin or her partner, but only “the father”.

 

At the same time, and I know I may very well sound heartless, but I have a difficult time accepting his desertion of this major operation that depends on him so much (especially since the fall out of the operation doesn’t just effect Locke, but hundreds of other people as well—I mean, Locke may think that this is all about him, but it really isn’t).

 

Perhaps I would have been more sympathetic to Locke if I didn’t feel like I was being manipulated and set up as much as I am by Knight (the least believable part of the story is that the baby is two months early and that the mother has absolutely no one in her life to be there for the birth—no one).

 

And perhaps I might have been more sympathetic to Locke if he didn’t constantly sound and react like one of those customer service operators who simply refuses to resolve an issue that they have the power to resolve if they wanted to, yet act like their hands are tied. (The metaphor Knight uses for Locke is concrete, which is apt, but loses its effectiveness the more obvious it becomes—and yes, indeed, it does become obvious.)

 

Perhaps the best scene is when Donal, the person who is taking over for Locke, starts upbraiding his boss for being the least bit impatient with him for not being as brilliant and up to snuff as the great Locke himself is—I mean, Locke can be one egotistical son of a bitch. Which is fine, I suppose, I’m just not convinced that this is Knight’s intention.

 

I think Knight hopes to make Locke sympathetic by making him fully accepting of all guilt and having him state over and over and over and over…and over again that he, and no one else, is totally responsible for his actions. But for me, the more he said it, the more it just made him seem more of an asshole and narcissist who thinks that he and his problems are the center of the world.

 

Even his desire to be there for the birth of his child is not really because of a moral imperative. It has something to do with his father having deserted him at some point and that he doesn’t want to do that for this newborn (we know this because of a series of monologues that Locke delivers Travis Bickle-like to a mirror—the least convincing and too on the nose aspect of the screenplay). So actually he’s deserting his duties because he has daddy issues.

 

I might even accept this if he didn’t already have two sons who he seems to have been there for all their lives. It’s not like his desire to be present for his child’s birth is an aberration. From all accounts, he’s actually been a very good father.

 

So for me and to sum it all up, Locke is a man who Knight hopes to make one empathize with by the time the movie is over, but for me just got more annoying and annoying…and annoying, as the story went on.

 

And Knight probably hasn’t helped himself by making it almost impossible to write a strong second act. Knight certainly sets up Locke’s Eliza on the ice situation rather well. But once he does that, all that’s really interesting is how it’s all going to be resolved. The process for Locke getting there really isn’t that compelling. It’s just a bunch of phone calls that are all on the same level of tension and don’t really build toward a climax.

 

After all, since there is absolutely no chance that Locke will turn back (he’s made of too much concrete to do that), these scenes become all information and filler, not really conflict or drama (as hard as the various actors work to make their scenes so).

 

Tom Hardy plays Locke and I think he’s very good. I say think because it’s hard to say whether Locke’s annoying personality is due to the writing or to Hardy’s performance. I would guess the former. I think that Hardy probably plays the role exactly as written. And in many ways, it’s a tour de force performance.

 

Even if he is rather annoying.

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1 Comment

  1. I also saw and loved ANIMAL HOUSE way back in the Triassic Age, and it’s mind blowing to moi that NEIGHBORS made a whopping $51 M at the box office opening weekend, given its insipid characters and goofy storyline. But sadly, that’s what the movie going audience likes to see and pay the big bucks for now. Anyway, good reviews, and I’m definitely looking forward to Tom Hardy’s contained performance in LOCKE!

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