There are probably lots of great things about your town. But if you had to pick just one, what would it be?
Traditionally summer blockbusters are created for, marketed to and star men. And most major movies this summer fit that mold, including Godzilla, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past.
But Maleficent, a film starring a woman — and an evil woman at that — cast a spell on audiences with a $70 million opening weekend, hitting the high end of its prerelease expectations. Why is the Disney film doing so well? The answer is women: 60% of the movie’s over-25 audience was female. Which means the other 51% of the population does matter when it comes to creating a box-office hit.
Earlier this year, an analysis by Vocativ found that movies with strong female roles make more money. This means movies that pass the Bechdel test — a simple evaluation that questions whether two women spoke to each other in the movie about something other than a man — score higher numbers at the domestic box office. And yet, 2013 was a dismal year for women in film: of the top 100 grossing films in 2013, women made up only 15% of the protagonists, 29% of the major characters and only 30% of all speaking characters, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
That trend seems to slowly be changing. The Heat, Frozen and The Hunger Games were some of the industry’s biggest hits last year. This summer things look even better: Angelina Jolie, Emily Blunt, Shailene Woodley, Jennifer Lawrence, Cameron Diaz and Rose Byrne are all featured on the silver screen — along with a brood of male superheroes and a giant green lizard (who we’ll call genderless). Studios are finally catching on.
Unsurprisingly, movies with the most robust roles for women drew the highest percentage of females: The Other Woman’s audience was 75% female; Maleficent’s 60%; and Neighbors’ 53%. The first film stars three actresses (though their dialogue may be problematic), the second centers on superstar Angelina Jolie, and the third film actually lets Rose Byrne deliver almost as many jokes as co-stars Zac Efron and Seth Rogen.
(A word on the sneaky feminism of Neighbors: as he promotes the movie, screenwriter and star Seth Rogen has spoken about consciously subverting Hollywood’s gender stereotypes. “That actually became the most exciting idea of the movie to us,” Rogen told Studio360. “That we could portray a couple where the wife is just as fun-loving and irresponsible as the guy, and they get along really well. In a comedy that’s almost nonexistent.” Neighbors features a fantastic scene in which married couple Rogen and Byrne debate who gets to be the irresponsible one in the relationship. He says she has to be because she’s the woman and the woman is always the wet towel. She says that’s not fair and refuses to act as his babysitter. Keep writing dialogue like this, Rogen!)
Meanwhile, movies with less interesting parts for women didn’t pull as many ladies into theaters. X-Men: Days of Future Past counts Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry and Ellen Page among its stars, but Berry is given little to do except look worried and Page — whose character goes back in time in the comic books — spends the whole movie massaging Wolverine’s head while he takes her place as all-important time traveler. Lawrence gets plenty of screen time, but her character is a clear bid for young men’s tickets sales — the Oscar winner is covered in blue body paint for most of the film. So only 44% of X-Men‘s audience was female.
Godzilla and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, both of which offer pretty female flimsy roles, clock in at 42% female and 39% female, respectively. These movies still did well at the box office, but would more women have seen X-Men if Kitty Pride (Page) was the character going back in time? My guess is yes.
The theory will continue to be tested this week when two more movies with strong female protagonists — The Fault in Our Stars, starring Woodley, and Edge of Tomorrow, co-starring Blunt along with Tom Cruise — open in theaters.
The takeaway? Getting a lot of women to see your movie is not essential to its success. Superhero and monster movies will continue to draw big crowds: Spider-Man, X-Men and Godzilla all had at least $90 million opening weekends. But courting more women certainly doesn’t hurt. After all, females make up 51% of the population.
Sporting a crew cut and a scowl, Seth Rogen assumes the voice of a farmer who dreams of planting “the finest reefer the Midwest has ever grown.” He adds: “That’s why when some idiot teacher tells me I’m not livin’ up to my potential, I just smile, ’cause I know I am.”
He was 16 or 17 when he auditioned for the cast of executive producer Judd Apaptow’s 1999 TV comedy Freaks and Geeks, but this one-minute tape already captures two of the three aspects of the Seth Rogen audiences have come to embrace: the pothead who’s an underachiever and proud of it. The third part of his appeal is the booming basso laugh, which makes him sound like the weirdest, most genial Jewish Santa Claus. (Rogen launched his career, in his hometown of Vancouver, B.C., as a teen standup comic making jokes about his bar mitzvah.)
(FIND: Freaks and Geeks on James Poniewozik’s list of the all-TIME 100 TV Shows)
This year, Rogen’s Christmas or Hanukkah came in May. Neighbors, which he starred in and produced, topped the weekend box office with $51.1 million — the strongest opening for a live-action comedy since Ted two summers ago, and an amazing start for a movie with a piddling $18-million budget. Evicting The Amazing Spider Man 2 from its one-week throne, Neighbors earned about as much money as The Great Gatsby did exactly a year ago.
Does this make Rogen the slob DiCaprio, the louche Leo? Maybe not: his affect doesn’t announce him as an obvious star. A pudgy fellow with glasses and, often, a scruffy beard, he’s the kind of actor who in earlier decades would have played supporting parts: the handsome hero’s wise-cracking pal. But movie comedy is a democracy whose most prominent players need not look as if they had stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. Jonah Hill, another thoroughbred from the Apatow stable, is also roundish and Jewish, but with a prickly edge. Rogen’s special gift to audiences is that he projects a sweet, unthreatening geniality — and, though he might cringe to hear it, an essential niceness. That’s what makes him, at 32, the stoner king of comedy.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Neighbors)
In the Freaks and Geeks class that also included James Franco and Jason Segel, Rogen’s comedy professor was Judd Apatow, the show’s executive producer. Apatow would go on to cast Rogen in a prominent supporting role in The 40 Year Old Virgin, give him the prime male role as the one-night stand confronted with fatherhood in Knocked Up and produce Superbad, the high-school comedy that Rogen and his writing partner (and fellow bar mitzvah student) Evan Goldberg had begun scripting when they were 13. Each movie had earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office by the end of 2007, when Rogen was all of 25.
The hits kept on coming for the actor-writer-producer, with the weed-driven, low-budget comedies Pineapple Express and This Is the End, which co-starred Franco and Hill, and took in another easy $100 million last summer. Add the distinctive voice work Rogen has contributed to such animated features as Shrek the Third, Horton Hears a Who!, Monsters vs. Aliens and Kung Fu Panda, and the total North American gross for his movies is more than $1.7 billion — a nice haul for the tyke tycoon of toke.
(READ: Mary Pols on Seth Rogen’s This Is the End)
Rogen’s Ken Miller in Freaks and Geeks was surly and acerbic — Segel asks him, “Can you ever not be sarcastic?” and Rogen replies, sarcastically, “I’m sarcastic?” — but with a furtive sensitivity. In one episode Ken stands outside the band room, watching with mournful devotion as his beloved “Tuba Girl” practices. That may have been the last time a Rogen character did any pining. He gives every evidence of being at ease with his girth (or he wouldn’t be photographed nude in the Knocked Up and Neighbors sex scenes) and the prematurely middle-age persona he has carried his entire public life.
Even in his early twenties, Rogen possessed the antiauthoritarian authority of an indulgent uncle who tells the kids to do whatever stupidly enjoyable thing they want. He’s a master of making a boast on matters other men might be ashamed of, as when he strode on stage at the 2012 Golden Globes in the company of sexy Kate Beckinsale and announced, “Hello, I’m Seth Rogen, and I am currently trying to conceal a massive erection.” But he also uses his celebrity in mature ways. He’s a spokesman for an Alzheimer’s awareness foundation — and, of course, a member of NORML, which agitates for the legalization of marijuana.
The best joke in Neighbors is that Rogen plays the voice of middle-age propriety — a husband and the father of an infant girl — to the rowdy young frat boys, led by the preening Teddy (Zac Efron), who have moved in next door. This battle of the generations has a couple of nuances: Rogen is just five-and-a-half years older than Efron, the erstwhile High School Musical heartthrob; and Rogen’s Mac, for all his annoyance that the loud music keeps him, his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne) and baby Sheila up at four in the morning, wants in on the frat guys’ hard partying. In his early thirties, he’s afraid that “All the things I used to do, I can’t do any more.” What is presented as a war between Teddy and Mac is really an internal struggle: Mac the protective father vs. Mac the fun-loving dopester. It’s a midlife crisis for a perennial teenager.
(READ: Lily Rothman’s 11 Questions for the Baby from Neighbors)
How will Rogen build on Neighbors’ break-out-hit status? It won’t take long to find out. Among his films near completion are the animated feature, Sausage Party — we’re guessing that, like most of Rogen’s movies, this will be rated R — and The Interview, in which he and Franco are a talk-show producer and his host who blunder into a U.S. government assignment to assassinate North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
His most beguiling project is an adaptation of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, directed by Franco and featuring a diverse cast: Franco, his brother Dave (Efron’s second-in-command in the Neighbors frat house), Pineapple Express costar Danny McBride and Jon Hamm of Mad Men. We don’t know what role Rogen plays in this convoluted tale of Southern aristocracy gone to seed, but it should serve as a refutation to the reporter in This Is the End who told Rogen, “You play the same guy in every movie. When are you going to do something else?”
(READ: Mary Corliss’s review of James Franco’s first Faulkner film, As I Lay Dying)
The Sound and the Fury could give a fascinating twist to the character that has made Seth Rogen one of America’s top stars: the friendly dopester almost anyone would want as a neighbor.
Neighbors surprised industry experts this weekend by scooping up $51.1 million and taking the top spot at the box office.
The comedy, starring Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, was not only expected to lose out to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but industry analysts predicted the film would only make around $35 million in its debut weekend, USA Today reports. The Spidey sequel came in second with an estimated $37.2 million on the weekend.
“Neighbors continues a frat house comedy legacy that Universal introduced with National Lampoon’s Animal House,” said Paul Dergarabedian of Rentrak, a firm that analyzes the entertainment industry and provided Sunday’s preliminary estimates. “R-rated comedy is a powerful draw.”
Don’t forget the adorable babies, too.
In this poster for the new movie Neighbors, out May 9, the text makes it clear that Seth Rogen and Zac Efron are the stars. But as you may notice, that’s not a picture of either of them.
Instead, that’s a picture of Stella, the baby who makes Rogen’s character care that the frat-dudes next door won’t keep it down. She’s played by Elise and Zoey Vargas — as with most on-screen infants, two babies play the one role — and, despite the major comedy chops of her co-stars, she steals the show.
Though my colleague Richard Corliss was disappointed that she functions as a comedy prop rather than a character — and yes, she does go some kind of scary places where a non-prop baby ought not — she does have comedy bona fides when she’s allowed to shine. If she were old enough to talk, it could be a break-out performance — the kind an entertainment journalist would love to highlight. Unfortunately, however, the Mses. Vargas are not available for interviews. (I checked.) And, even if they were making a tour of the junket circuit, it’s tough to do a Q&A with an infant. (I assume.)
So, in lieu of such an Q&A, here are the Qs I would have asked them if they could talk:
What attracted you to this project?
What were your first impressions upon reading the script?
Who are your comedy influences?
Did you get any career advice from the veteran actors with whom you were working?
Did the director give you any room to improvise?
That scene where you roll over in the crib has some pretty impressive timing…
You’re welcome. Did you have to do a lot of takes on that one?
Stanislavski or Meisner?
Who has a smoother stroller-pushing technique, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne or your real-life folks?
How do you feel about the number of funny, female roles available in mainstream Hollywood right now? Is it a tough environment for a comedienne starting out?
It seems like this must have been a pretty fun set. Who was the resident prankster?
Oh, really? Whoa.
The world may never know the answers to these questions, as it’s unlikely Elise and Zoey Vargas will remember them by the time they’re old enough to tell (fortunately for the reputation of any on-set pranksters). But there is one question we can answer on their behalf:
Catch Elise and Zoey Vargas as baby Trevor in the upcoming Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, in theaters this October.
When the comedy Neighbors — which stars Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as Mac and Kelly Radner, a couple with a baby whose lives are upended when a rowdy fraternity led by Zac Efron’s Teddy Sanders moves next door — was originally conceived, Rogen and Efron’s characters were written as hate-filled rivals from minute one. But after hearing the two stars’ obvious chemistry at an early table read, it became clear that having them bond before developing their rift was essential. “We realized how much we would get along, and how funny we could be together,” Rogen, also a producer on the film, tells TIME. “Because of that, we extended the honeymoon period.”
In the film, which hits theaters May 9, the disparate lifestyles of the new parents and the fraternity lead to subterfuge and all-out war, including sexual schemes and violent booby traps all intended for maximum laughs. But first, Mac and Kelly see the last vestiges of their youth in the fraternity’s booze- and drug-fueled bashes, and integrate themselves into the perpetual party next door.
For Rogen, now is the time to deal with the issue of trying to sidestep adulthood — however unsuccessfully. “I’ve been the star of almost every movie I’ve had some hand in creating, and because of that, I’ve always made movies that focused on people [my] age,” says Rogen. “Now, I’m 32, I’m married, and a lot of my friends have kids or are having kids. So it only seemed natural to make a movie that embraced that.”
Neighbors marks an even greater turning point for Efron, with the 26-year-old heartthrob top-lining (along with Rogen) his first adult comedy, and also for the first time playing a villainous character. “Mostly I was just excited,” says Efron. “The caliber of work when you’re on set with [guys like this] is really smart and funny. You have to be ready for anything. The hardest part [for me] was finding some heart in this character, because he does a lot of really heinous things, and he’s nothing like me. This is the furthest character from myself that I’ve ever played.”
Hinging as it does on the chemistry between the two leads, the film found a bonding point in an early party scene where a wasted Mac and Teddy compare Batman impressions. The improvised scene sets the stage for the battle to come, making the film’s central feud not just a disagreement between neighbors, but the result of a perceived betrayal between two people who, if even for just a fleeting moment, cared about each other.
The scene evolved from a desire to find a funny way to depict the difference in age between the two. “We were trying to find slight variations [in our tastes],” says Efron, “small generational differences in things like video games.”
“We knew we wanted them to talk about the difference in their generations,” says director Nicholas Stoller. “I noticed Zac doing Batman impressions [on the set]. He does a really good Bane. So we were shooting the scene with all these jokes we’d written, but it felt forced. If they don’t bond in that scene, then the movie won’t work. One of them started talking about Batman, and I yelled from behind the monitor, ‘Just compare Batman impressions.’ I’m rarely sure that I got something until I’m cutting the movie, but [after that], I was like, that’s gonna be in the movie. That’s kinda magical.”
“It perfectly demonstrates the generational divide between the guys,” says Rogen, “but it also shows that if circumstances were different, they would really get along.”
For Efron, the set’s free-flowing nature was liberating, if not a bit stressful.
“In a film like this, in this genre, it’s instrumental to be able to be on your toes and stay in character,” says Efron. “Improvising with certain people brings out the best in you, and the advantage here was, these guys are incredible at it. It’s a challenge, because you don’t know what you’re going to say, so you literally just have to be. It’s freeing in a way. I had a blast.”
Now that he’s been seduced by the improvisational comedy bug, Neighbors could represent a turning point in Efron’s career: audiences are likely to wonder if he’ll join the likes of Rogen, Paul Rudd and more in becoming a staple of the modern comedy.
“I could see that happening, for sure,” says Efron. “I think it’s all [about] who you surround yourself with. I’m really lucky to be in a movie with these guys, and I would jump at the chance to do it again.”
At Braxton College’s Delta Psi Beta fraternity, the members love their members. Pete (Dave Franco) can build an impressive erection just by concentrating for a few seconds; he says his gift is “a blessing yet a curse.” Another brother, skinny Scoonie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), is defined only by his legendarily large penis. Led by their satyric president Teddy (Zac Efron), the guys raise needed funds for Delta Psi by selling plaster casts of their not-at-all-private parts to the women on campus. And when Teddy gets into a fight with his older neighbor Mac Radnor (Seth Rogen), he forces a brightly colored dildo into his adversary’s mouth.
The frat boys’ penis fixation, in the enervating comedy Neighbors, could be an expression of their homoerotic bonding to the virtual exclusion of women — their mantra is “bros before hoes” — or a clue to an infantilism these boys never outgrew. Teddy is barely more mature than Mac’s several-months-old daughter Stella, who sits on the front lawn about to taste a used condom tossed there by one of the Delta Psis. When Mac and his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne) frantically whisk their child to the hospital for tests, a doctor tells them, “Your baby has HIV.” Like the rest of the movie, he’s just kidding.
At this point, a weary viewer may mutter, “Oh, outrage — how I miss you!” These days, indignation is mostly political, stoked by the easily infuriated pundits of Fox News. And the only thing forbidden in most current movies is subtlety. That’s what happens when the outlaws become the in-laws.
Not that we miss the old days: the battle for freedom of the screen was long, difficult and well worth waging. But winning takes its own revenge on social norms. What was sensational was soon codified, as transgression devolved into genre and audiences built up immunity for shock tactics in horror movies and in R-rated comedies of the Judd Apatow stripe. The problem is this: A movie can’t have the purgative power to upset and astound, by terror or laughter, if viewers don’t take offense. And few do. But they also can’t take much pleasure in variations on the same visual and verbal affronts they’ve consumed for decades. So instead of getting as mad as hell and picketing the theaters, they sink into their seats and sigh at the clichés that pass for the Shock of the New.
Directed by Nicholas Stoller (who helmed the Apatow-produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five Year Engagement and Get Him to the Greek), Neighbors bears some similarities to the 1981 film of the same name. There, meek homeowner John Belushi and his wife Kathryn Walker get terrified by the loud, pushy couple, played by Dan Aykroyd and Cathy Moriarty, who have just moved in next door. This time, Rogen is more or less the Belushi character from the old film and Efron the wild-man Belushi from Animal House. Anarchy impinges on propriety. Which will triumph? Whom will you root for? If either.
The new Neighbors seems to set up a war of the generations: parents Mac and Kelly vs. Teddy and the frat boys in the adjacent home. That doesn’t really take, since Rogen was born in 1982, just five years before Efron — but it really doesn’t matter either, since Mac, suddenly saddled with a father’s responsibilities, is bummed out that “All the things I used to do, I can’t do anymore.” Annoyed and then angered by the frat’s pranks and all-night parties, he is also avid for a second chance at reckless youth. The inner Mac wants to follow the advice stitched on his couch pillow: “Carpe That F-cking Diem,” except that the pillow actually has an u where I put a puritanical dash.
Screenwriters Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien (who worked in minor capacities on Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin) are fascinated by things that can expand to the bursting point — air bags, a mother’s breasts — but show no interest in plot plausibility. The script does the briefest handsprings to show why Mac and Kelly can’t rely on the campus cops or the other neighbors, but it utterly ignores baby Stella’s welfare. With her parents spending so much time over at Delta Psi, the child must be her own sitter. Her only function is to be prop comedy, as in the condom gag.
Running just 96 min., Neighbors seems longer because it employs the improv techniques of old John Cassavetes dramas. Certain lines are repeated four or five times to give the feeling of spontaneity, but thanks, we got it the first time. It’s as if any joke made on the set was incorporated into the movie, like the remark about the nerdy pledge, nicknamed Assjuice (Craig Roberts), that “He looks like J.J. Abrams.” The drug humor piles up — the combination to one wall safe is 420 — as the narrative escalates into a home-invasion thriller gone berserk: fat Mac tangling with six-pack Teddy.
The movie’s only special effect, its sole sexual allure, is Efron’s inverted-trapezoidal torso, which Rogen describes as “basically a giant arrow pointing to your dick.” Efron honed that perfect body at the Disney gym in his High School Musical years and probably in the workout room at the drug and alcohol rehab center he entered last year. (The star says he’s now sober, so his turn as the hard-partying Teddy must be actual Acting.) He certainly provides a stark contrast to Rogen, who is no less eager to display his pudginess shirtless and pantsless.
Among the usually clothed performers, Byrne plays a nice balance of threatened and enticed. Franco — James’s younger brother — brings occasional clarity to the rambunctious but studious Pete, and Lisa Kudrow has a couple of sharp scenes as the Braxton dean. (Andy Samberg and his Lonely Planet pals show up in a flashback cameo.)
Toward the end, the film makes the salutary point that Teddy’s priapic prime at Delta Psi was not a preparation for his postcampus life but pretty much his entire career, and that for this fraternity’s hardest partier there may be not much life after college. That leaves the previous hour and a half to assault you with Teddy’s idea of fun. Mac and Kelly can’t leave their home because the existence of Delta Psi has demolished property values, but moviegoers do have an option. When Neighbors moves in, audiences can opt out.