Michael Mohan‘s latest film, Pink Grapefruit, premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and won the Narrative Jury Prize at SXSW. He most recently directed a series of branded films for Kate Spade starring Anna Kendrick and Lily Tomlin. Other credits include Save the Date, starring Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, and Martin Starr. Currently, he’s co-writing The Ends for the production company Big Beach. See more of his work at michaelmohan.com.
You’ve all seen the ads for Nicholas Stoller’s new film, Neighbors, the current #1 movie at the box office, so I will spare you the summary. But watching this Seth Rogen/Zac Efron crowdpleaser crystallized a few thoughts in my mind about how to effectively infuse human emotion into a modern mainstream comedy, and to what degree.
But first, let’s get on the same page about something. I categorize comedy by how heightened the world of the story is. For me, there’s this very clear scale. On one end, there are films like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Strange Brew, or Top Secret!, that take place in a fully unrealistic universe. Where suspension of disbelief willingly happens at the cinema door. On the other end lie more grounded films like Annie Hall or The Apartment, that take place in the same world as you and me.
And appropriately, the relative success of each of these types of films is measured differently. I’m not talking about box-office success, but measuring how clearly the intentions of the filmmaker were ultimately realized. In the case of films whose movie-ness is on the high end of the scale, it’s all about whether or not the film has been effectively engineered to deliver frequent laughs. That’s it. We’re not watching Austin Powers movies in order to more deeply understand the human condition.
And on the opposite end of the spectrum, I’d argue that success is measured by how emotionally connected you feel to the characters. And the function of humor is to build pathos, for the source of our laughter is usually deep rooted in the characters’ vulnerabilities. The Breakfast Club would perhaps be the most textbook example of this. It may not be consistently funny through each and every scene, but you are so damn immersed because these characters remind you of someone you know, or quite possibly yourself.
I’d argue that most comedies, however, are pitched squarely in the middle, where the characters feel real-ish. Where the premise feels almost plausible. But you’re willing to continually suspend your disbelief as needed as long as the film rewards you with decent jokes. The emotional quotient in these films is usually somewhat bullshit, but perhaps that’s okay. Even though the film doesn’t carry true emotional weight, the familiar patterns of the narrative are still cozy, reminding you that you’re out of your own reality and indeed watching a movie. I think Adam Sandler has cornered the market on making this type of film (which I say with complete respect – I don’t want to suggest that this is easy, by any stretch).
Now as a filmgoer I appreciate comedies that fall on all sides of the spectrum, but as a filmmaker I naturally gravitate towards more grounded characters and situations. But, within the studio system, where you’re able to create with the level of resources that allow you and your collaborators to do your very best work (and have the engine to push that work out to the largest audience possible), these types of comedies seem to be few and far between. In fact, the last fully grounded comedy I can think of that was not made independently is perhaps The Devil Wears Prada, a film I absolutely adore.
Which brings me to the work of Nicholas Stoller. What I’ve always admired about Stoller’s work is that his films appear to exist in that easy middle ground, but they’re actually far more intelligent. He’s able to sneak some uncustomary real emotional beats within that familiarity. They skew, just by a matter of degrees, more grounded. And for a guy with similar aspirations, I find them inspiring.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall, for instance, is so great. Heartache is one of the most universal of feelings, and so every single audience member can sympathize with this main character. And as Jason Segel careens through this deliciously fun premise, we graciously suspend our disbelief not only because it’s just so funny, but because we can also kind of imagine ourselves in his shoes. It miraculously succeeds on the level of both grounded and hyper-reality-based comedies simultaneously.
I thought The Five-Year Engagement was underrated. Underneath all the he-jumped-in-a-snow-bank-but-landed-on-a-fire-hydrant gags were some of the most surprisingly mature themes to appear in a modern mainstream movie. What sacrifices are you willing to make in order to allow the other half of your relationship to thrive? And how can these acts of selflessness manifest feelings of resentment and guilt?
There were moments of pure honesty woven throughout, where I related to the characters’ situations more than in some dramas. In fact, I was so deeply engrossed in the honesty of certain scenes, that whenever the film flipped, asking me to suspend my disbelief in favor of a gag, I have to admit, I didn’t have the easiest time conceding. But because the film has some seriously showstoppingly funny moments, I couldn’t allow my deeper connection to the characters get in the way of enjoying the film. In a very odd way, perhaps if the film had less emotional depth, that would have actually made it easier (but there’s absolutely no way I would have wanted that).
So walking into Neighbors, I hoped that Stoller would perhaps lean even further in towards his natural gift for weaving in moments of relatable emotional earnestness into the narrative. To keep moving that needle even further towards more grounded mainstream cinema.
There’s one moment in particular that encapsulates exactly what I mean: Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are slightly stoned, staring at each other in bed, thinking about what their lives are going to be like now that they have a newborn baby. She says something to the effect of “I think we’ll be good parents, and I think we’ll be bad parents.” And Rogen’s reaction is exquisite. It’s a moment of genuine love for his wife, but also this sense of relief, that he doesn’t actually need to feel the internal pressure he puts on himself now that he’s a father. It’s oddly beautiful.
The scene continues, and the conversation goes deeper. Despite all the new challenges and compromises that will come with this newfound responsibility, this couple won’t think of it as missing out on their old ways. Rather the new, more mature people they’ve become simply gravitate towards these more emotionally fulfilling things.
In this moment, I felt like I was watching a real couple having a real conversation. Byrne is wonderful as always, beyond committed. And Rogen continues to be one of the most relatable human beings on screen today (and if you disagree with me, watch Take This Waltz and see if your opinion changes – he’s absolutely phenomenal in that film).
However, this is the only scene in the movie that is grounded. The rest of the film doesn’t fall in the middle of the scale – it is probably his broadest and raunchiest comedy to date, far more than Get Him to the Greek. It dutifully ricochets from one “trailer moment” to another, with scenes devoted to characters getting their pubic hairs ripped off, or getting in a fight where dildos are used as weapons. One particular scene even brought to mind Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q, where Rogen has to “milk” his aching, hungover wife so that their baby doesn’t accidentally get alcohol poisoning. The audience I saw it with absolutely loved it.
So what’s the takeaway? Unlike Five-Year Engagement, the film never has to flip back and forth between true earnestness and ridiculousness. It only does so that one time for that one scene, and Stoller smartly saves it for the last 10 minutes. That is how you inject heart into a film whose reality is pitched at this level – you sneak it right in at the end, under the radar.
And so despite the fact I’m selfishly craving more comedies with a slightly higher percentage of honesty overall, I have to acknowledge that Neighbors is a movie whose poster shows a smiling baby sitting atop a beer keg. By the scale of which comedies like this should be measured, it is a complete success. And even if we can only get one great scene, it is certainly more than most, and for that I am still appreciative.