The 'Neighbors' conundrum: Why we laugh at male friendship
There’s a scene at the end of “Neighbors” that’s always bugged me. Zac Efron (“Baywatch”) and Dave Franco (“The Little Hours”) are best friends who have been fighting and growing apart over the course of the movie, but now Efron’s character is about to turn himself into the police to save his friends and they’re forced to make up. It starts out sweet, touching even. They tell each other they love each other (“I fucking love you man,” “I love YOU dawg”) and their eyes are welling over with tears. “I love you!” Efron says again. “That’s why I gotta go out there!” Franco starts bouncing up and down and screams “BE in this moment! Live in this shit with me!” They scream “I LOVE YOU!” and “I FUCKING LOVE YOU MAN” over and over again, both crying and hugging each other, to the point that Efron puts a stop to it. “Look, man, I love you and all,” he says, “but like, I’ve gotta go...so....”
It’s a funny scene — Franco and Efron are both really good at embodying their frat bro personas while seeing the inherent humor in their macho posturing, and they’re talented comic actors. The music swells dramatically while the editing is lots of quick cuts between their two faces as they trade shouts of love at each other. Just bros being dudes, you know? It’s supposed to be funny, and it is. But my question is, why does this have to be funny at all?
Make no mistake: The butt of the joke is the fact that these are two big, handsome frat guys who are having a moment of genuine love, friendship and emotion. But I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s anything particularly hilarious about honest connection and friendship between two people who really care about each other. The only way to make that kind of thing funny at all is through the ironic, winking way the writers frame the scene. As if there’s something inherently unmanly, overemotional and embarrassing about the way they’re acting.
I can’t help but wonder how much more powerful that scene could have been if instead of shouting their declarations of love in an increasingly ridiculous affectation, the characters had looked each other in the eyes and said, “I love you. You’re my best friend.” And that would be that. No need to cover the feelings in layers of disingenuous irony and this inflated, self-conscious posturing.
I’ve seen this scene play out in so many movies and TV shows. There’s a whole episode in “New Girl” dedicated to Nick’s inability to accept Schmidt’s friendship and love, and it culminates in three men crying all over each other and confessing how much they care about each other. Only instead of playing the moment straight, the editing and framing (they all awkwardly walk away, clearly embarrassed) are telling us to laugh. Same thing in “Superbad,” and so many other contemporary comedies.
It’s a little heartbreaking. The message being delivered to young male audiences here is undeniable: Your feelings are funny. Your friendships are laughable. Your moments of honest connection are not masculine and need to be displaced and distanced from you with a good dose of self-awareness and quippiness. Of course, it’s not like these movies exist in a vacuum — they’re reflecting the way we as a culture see masculinity and male friendships in the real world. But can’t our media be more than a mirror? Can’t we be a little aspirational? Why not hope for a kinder, more gentle world, one in which men can just tell their friends they love each other without being seen as effeminate or overemotional?
This isn’t a small thing, limited to a few late 2010s comedies. There are real and awful consequences to the reinforcement of this worldview. The undercurrent to all this is a belief that actions coded feminine (you know, little things like expressions of love, emotion and tenderness) are inherently embarrassing. It’s the belief that women are fundamentally inferior, and being seen as womanly is the very worst thing a man can be. Thinking this, holding it as true, growing up with it embedded deep in the core of who you are, it hurts people. It causes men to be angry and violent, and deeply, deeply sad.
I think we can do better. I think we can use our media to create better models of behavior, ones that are a little less incisive and clever, and a little more human. I think modern comedies can be hilarious and sharp and full of heart. I think men can find ways to be a little more gentle with each other. I really believe that — no irony, no distance, no posturing. We can all be a little more gentle with each other. This is a place to start.