Rob Edelman: Raunch And The Box Office

May 19, 2014

As of the second week in May, the top four moneymaking films released theatrically in the U.S. in 2014 were THE LEGO MOVIE, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, and DIVERGENT. All are big-budget extravaganzas that are fashioned to attract a desired demographic: young people, from grade schoolers to twenty-and-thirtysomethings.

So upon its theatrical release, how does a film like NEIGHBORS come to replace THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 as the top-grossing movie of the moment? For after all, NEIGHBORS is not based on a popular comic book or graphic novel, or best-selling novel. It does not feature mass-destruction and larger-than-life superheroes. It does not highlight special effects or similar eye-candy. It does not feature a name-brand, such as Lego, that automatically will connect with countless youngsters.

Additionally, the box office success of NEIGHBORS has nothing whatsoever to do with its quality. In short, the film comically charts the escalating tensions between a thirtysomething married couple who are new to parenthood and their new next door neighbors: some stereotypically raucous frat boys who are obsessed with all-night partying and making noise, excessive drinking and making noise, sadistically hazing their pledges and making noise. The humor is, well, on the raunchy side, in the spirit of films from THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY to AMERICAN PIE. If you embrace this kind of comedy-- for example, at one point, a baby gets to play with a prophylactic-- well, NEIGHBORS will amuse you. But comedy is, after all, one of the most subjective of genres, so if you have no tolerance for vulgarity and if you find yourself in a theater in which NEIGHBORS is playing, you just might be constantly checking your watch in anticipation of the film's final credits. 

But beyond its raunch-comedy status, NEIGHBORS is cleverly fashioned to appeal to two specific groups: school or college-age young people and twenty or thirtysomethings who are settling into their lives. In the film, the mom and pop with the newborn baby are the grown-ups. They want to be responsible parents and responsible citizens, and their plight is relatable to the countless twenty or thirtysomethings who are building relationships, building families, building careers-- and who still fork out big bucks to attend movies. The second group consists of the party-hearty frat boys who personify noisy, obnoxious neighbors-from-hell and who constantly use the word "old" in reference to the husband and wife. These characters surely will draw in those of high school or college age whose lives are centered around partying, partying, and more partying. So in these characters, we have a film that will attract the two groups who, with the exception of children, are most-coveted by the movie industry.

One other point: These days, with rare exception, name actors do not automatically rope in moviegoers. Sure, Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, the stars-- and, if you will, opposing forces-- in NEIGHBORS are popular actors. But I cannot imagine potential moviegoers who are seeking out a newly-released Saturday night diversion telling their buddies, "Hey, let's check out the latest Seth Rogen flick" or "There's a new Zac Efron playing at the mall." What they might do is report, "There's a new movie that pits some young party-hearty frat boys against a still-young mom and pop. Plus, there's plenty of humor that involves sex and body functions."

That is the film's appeal. And that is what allowed NEIGHBORS to take in a whopping $51.1-million during its opening weekend, and displace THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 as the weekend's number-one movie.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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