What Truly Makes ‘Neighbors’ a Better Comedy Than ‘Grown Ups 2’?

By  · Published on May 12th, 2014

Universal Pictures

There’s a great jab at Kevin James movies in Neighbors. Seth Rogen’s character is arguing with his wife, played by Rose Byrne, because he thinks she needs to be the responsible part of their marriage, and he cites the actor’s work comparatively. He’s watched too many movies and TV shows, apparently, in which an idiot male needs to be reigned in by his more rational female partner, and he thinks that’s reality. I’m sure a lot of husbands out there will identify. But Byrne’s character wants to have fun and be a little immature, too. She can be just as foul-mouthed and get just as down and dirty as the boys, and man does she. This break from expectations is one of the reasons Neighbors succeeds as a great work of comedy. It aims to be more realistic and relatable than your average dumb gross-out movie.

In particular, there is one recent comedy starring James that relates very much to Neighbors: Grown Ups 2. I didn’t include it on my list of movies to watch after seeing the newer movie, because I don’t want to recommend it (I got enough flack for giving it a non-negative review last year), but it’s probably the movie I thought about most while watching Rogen and Byrne battle a fraternity led by Zac Efron and Dave Franco. Both movies deal with adults in arrested development clashing with young attractive college students. Either one could go by the original title of Neighbors, which was “Townies.” But only one features someone waking up to a deer in their face and then falling into a bucket of shit. The other just has someone waking up to a deer in their face and then being sprayed with urine.

With such similar themes and jokes, if not plot (Grown Ups 2 doesn’t really have a plot), it should in theory seem odd that Grown Ups 2 received such bad reviews – 7% on Rotten Tomatoes – while Neighbors received such positive reviews – 74% on Rotten Tomatoes. Some it has to do with critical taste and prejudice regarding their casts, to be sure, but there are indeed elements that elevate Neighbors above the Adam Sandler movie, and it’s worth understanding what they are.

As the R-rated of the two, Neighbors goes a lot further with the gross gags, such as one involving lactation. It also obviously can capitalize on more cursing and crasser language. And it is able to do more with an unfortunate kind of humor they both share, which plays to gay fear, because penises. Grown Ups 2 might have a nastier farting in bed bit than Neighbors does, but otherwise it’s the tamer of the two. I don’t know that it’s necessarily targeted more to younger viewers, but it isn’t really family or kid friendly. It’s just a cartoon or at least about cartoon characters. Compared to Neighbors, Grown Ups 2 is rather surreal and includes bits that aren’t in any way plausible, such as when Shaquille O’Neal throws a frat boy over a roof. Rogen’s movie is about human beings. The action is at times over the top in its exaggeration, but it’s pretty much only stuff that could be real.

Everyone on screen in Grown Ups 2 is pretty detestable with no redeeming value except that we can laugh at them. And everyone in Neighbors is also pretty unlikable to a degree, but they’re also likable sometimes, too. That’s because they’re more three-dimensional and identifiable. They are a morally grey bunch, just like the majority of real people. In Grown Ups 2, though, we’re supposed to side with the older group just because they’re the stars. Even though they’re just as awful as the college kids, including the leader, played by an uncredited Taylor Lautner. Unlike Lautner and his gang, their equivalents in Neighbors are also developed and identifiable, neither bad guys nor good. Efron and Franco even have a narrative arc between them that reveals an emotional level that we can care about.

Many are citing Byrne as the best thing about Neighbors, and maybe she is the funniest in part because we don’t think she will be (though some reviews oddly act as if she hasn’t been hilarious in movies before), but just the idea of having her be rough and raunchy isn’t entirely special. Grown Ups 2’s Maya Rudolph and Salma Hayek can lay the punches and be as bold as anyone in either movie, but they’re still very minimized characters who are supposed to just be the stereotypically shrewish wives. Yet even if we are to celebrate that Byrne is given more to do while playing a more fully written role, we should also realize that the women in Neighbors are the most exaggerated pieces of the ensemble (with possible exception made for Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s super-size little McLovin). Plus, Carla Gallo holds the movie back almost as much as Byrne pushes it forward.

The best thing Neighbors does, rather, is set us up to see the battle of the houses from all sides, to accept every character as the possible protagonist of this or any movie – even Assjuice (Craig Roberts). To empathize with not only both Efron and Rogen in their dispute but with both Efron and Franco in theirs and with both Rogen and Byrne in theirs. It’s like screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien wrote a bunch of separate movies, each focused on a different one of the characters in Neighbors, and then they threw them together for one meaty, well-balanced feature. Whereas I don’t think Grown Ups 2 was written (by Sandler, Fred Wolf and Tim Herlihy) with any of its characters in mind so much as it was done with dollars in mind. They executed a number of gags well for what they were, but they didn’t execute much in the way of believable characters.

But hopefully Grown Ups 2 represents a dying breed of mainstream Hollywood comedies. Out with the old guard of Sandler and his SNL buddies (including GU2’s David Spade, Chris Rock, Tim Meadows, Maya Rudolph, Jon Lotitz, Cheri Oteri, Ellen Cleghorne, Melanie Hutsell, Andy Samberg, Will Forte, Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan) and further in with the newer Apatow crowd (not that Neighbors is produced by Apatow, nor does it have many of his old prime time players – just Rogen and Gallo). That Neighbors opened with $51m, the best yet for Rogen and his whole crew, compared to GU2’s $42m, which is one of the best for Sandler and his team (who’ve never opened as big as $50m), shows that audiences are more interested in a smarter, more human kind of movie. At least a little bit. Exit polls resulted in a B grade for Neighbors via Cinemascore, which is only slightly higher than GU2’s B- grade.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.