Spoilers for Neighbors 2 ahead.
Early in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, Zac Efron, Dave Franco, and other frat bros from the original 2014 movie assemble around a poker table. Square jaws and goofy bravado intact, they are a little more domesticated, but no less tribal and demented. Everything is as it should be.
Then something odd happens. Suddenly, several of the men break into a ukulele-led rendition of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” and Darren (John Early), a newcomer to the group, takes a knee in front of Pete (Franco). It’s a proposal. Of marriage. Pete says yes, the men kiss, and the camera never cuts away. The proud brothers break into a chant of “USA! USA!!”
The scene is ingeniously direct. There are no weird jokes, just a cute proposal inflected with priceless post-frat touches (see: Mraz, ukulele, inexplicable patriotism). The infectious moment almost distracts us from what’s really going on. Recall that in the original Neighbors, Pete hooked up with women and was carefully coded as heterosexual, even though his most intense emotional (and really, physical) bonds were clearly with his frat brothers. This is the “bromance” contract Neighbors observed: The love between the two men in question (in this case, Efron and Franco) must never become sexual. In turn, the audience, usually young men, giggles rather than asks questions.
By bringing Pete out of the closet without so much as a wink, Neighbors 2 tries to tear down that wall. The proposal scene is beautifully engineered to catch audiences off guard and then disarm them with genuine sweetness and giddy emotion. The sequence feels like a stinging rebuke to years of skittish comedies about male bonds, up to and including the original Neighbors—an unforced triumph in a movie that could have been much safer.
We can trace the modern bromance movie back about a decade, roughly to the years following 2007’s Superbad, about two teenage outcasts with filthy mouths and an undying love for each other. Comedy about male friendship wasn’t new, but these movies and their mutually adoring heroes felt like a shift after a decade of virulently homophobic frat-pack flicks—Wedding Crashers, Dodgeball, etc.—in which same-sex kisses and man-on-man contact were the ultimate transgression. Seth Rogen, a co-writer and co-star of Superbad who also leads both Neighbors movies, helped usher in this new tide along with his Apatovian ilk, from Pineapple Express to the less subtle I Love You, Man. The movies proved to be a formidable challenge to the Will Ferrell-Vince Vaughn anti-laugh factory. Before long, they became a bit of an assembly line themselves, and they brought their own problems, but they seemed at least to reject many of American comedy’s most toxic gay-panic instincts in favor of newly introspective male relationships.
Or so I thought. Lately, Rogen doesn’t seem so sure. In a widely quoted Guardian interview promoting Neighbors 2, he said:
It’s funny looking at some movies we’ve made in the last 10 years under the lenses of new eras, new social consciousness. There’s for sure some stuff in our earlier movies—and even in our more recent movies—where even like a year later you’re like, “Eh, maybe that wasn’t the greatest idea.” …
There are probably some jokes in Superbad that are bordering on blatantly homophobic at times. They’re all in the voice of high school kids, who do speak like that, but I think we’d also be silly not to acknowledge that we also were, to some degree, glamorizing that type of language in a lot of ways.
Looking back, he’s not wrong. Superbad, now nearly 10 years old, was the first feature Rogen wrote (with his writing partner Evan Goldberg), and the jokes tended to hinge on the fear of sucking dicks, drawing dicks, or just being near dicks. It’s the kind of movie where a character named Fogell inevitably becomes Fagell. There are plenty of other examples in the oeuvre. Take, for instance, Channing Tatum’s cameo as a bottom-boy sex slave in This is the End. Or The Interview, with its truly idiotic scenes where Eminem comes out as gay and James Franco kisses Kim Jong-un. Neighbors itself toggles between gay baiting and gay panic, as when two frat bros grasp each other’s balls during a fight but then have a near breakdown when one of them gets an erection.
But even as they relied on these sometimes-homophobic crutches, the movies really were getting at something new. To a viewer like me—who nearly melted in a college-town theater when Superbad’s wistful teen boys stared into each other’s eyes and declared, “I love you, man”—it felt as if they were priming the audience to accept new modes of male intimacy. It couldn’t be a coincidence that the bromance hit a zeitgeisy high at the same time American pop culture began to question its ideas about male closeness and kneejerk ridiculing of gayness. Gay panic didn’t disappear from Hollywood comedies, but this gentle progress certainly made a difference.
Still, a clear taboo remained, a new code that still seemed to forbid explicit romance. That brings us back to Neighbors 2. Rogen, who reprises his role as a young father warding off the excesses of the Greek house next door, picked up a screenwriting credit this time around, along with his writing partner Goldberg. Goldberg was apparently the one who suggested that Pete “should just be gay,” since he basically was already. Rogen agreed, and so Neighbors 2’s unlikely reveal was born. In their passing acknowledgement that one of these guys could love another one romantically, they dismantled one of the bromance’s foundational constraints. Just like that.
Alas, Neighbors 2 arrives a little too late to mark a sea change—the genre as I have defined it is now in decline, giving way to a long-overdue wave of female-star vehicles and a far less welcome resurgence in frat-pack tendencies. But the moment is still worth celebrating, because it shows how the movie’s homosocial progenitors really did open up new possibilities. It’s hard to imagine the marriage subplot (and that unabashed same-sex kiss) could have made it into a studio comedy aimed at young men a decade ago. We can thank these films for some of that evolution. And on that hopeful note, should there be a Neighbors 3, perhaps Rogen and Goldberg can explore why Pete didn’t get engaged to Teddy (Efron), who showed pretty much the exact same signs of being smitten with his frat brother in the original movie. That’s a wedding I’d truly like to see.