Nicholas Stoller’s Cinematic Guide to AdulthoodPosted: May 18, 2014
Sorry this one is getting up a week later than it should; I’ve been swamped with non-blog responsibilities to deal with instead. It’s actually kind of fitting, as the last few months have really started making me feel like an Adult. During this recent stretch, I got a 9-to-5 office job, found an apartment without my parents’ help or financial support, and took in a pet to take care of. Combined with my (amazing) long-term girlfriend, it seems like I’m starting to figure stuff out by the classic definition. But now that I’m feeling vaguely more mature, the usual Apatow Comedy Troupe manchild hijinks don’t resonate with me as much as they might have a few years ago. However, one subsection of their collective work does hit home for me in a very specific way: the films of Nicholas Stoller. Stoller’s movies, rather than dealing with early-twentysomething dudes trying to grow up, follow people who have (mostly) grown up, trying to deal with the ramifications of what that means, and his latest film Neighbors is no exception.
In the case of Neighbors (with a script from Andrew J Cohen and Brendan O’Brien), Stoller explores the idea that there’s a time when growing up isn’t really an option anymore, and that if you don’t heed that time then you’ll be worse for it. The arc of frat boy Teddy (Zac Efron) is that he isn’t ready to go into the Adult World and commits himself to partying and screwing with the family next door (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) as a refutation of that ticking clock. He represents, more or less, the attitude of all the dude-bros that have embraced films like The Hangover, and shows how much of a dead end that attitude can be. He’s so frightened of being left behind by his friend Peter (Dave Franco) that he goes to extreme lengths to hide behind their usual frat boy antics. Meanwhile, while Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) still want to be the young hard-partying wild things they were when they met, they realize by the end they’re happy being Adults and doing Adult stuff, and that they’re happy to leave that craziness in their past and embrace who and where they are now. This is perfectly expressed in the denouement, when the couple (somewhat stoned) crash in bed and reflect on how much they really do prefer Adult stuff now.
But besides just Neighbors, Stoller’s filmography has plenty else to say about Adulthood. Get Him to the Greek (written by Stoller himself), for example, sends a message to the people that are still out there partying, that drowning yourself in vices won’t help you escape the problems in your life around you. Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) has spent years doing just this, to escape his bitterness over his father (Colm Meany) his lover (Byrne again) and his flailing career. He then drags Aaron (Jonah Hill) into this cycle, playing on Aaron’s frustrations with his girlfriend Daphne (Elisabeth Moss) and convincing him to follow Aldous down the rabbit hole of fucked-up behavior. Even when Aaron wants to reconcile with Daphne, Aldous then tries to drag her down too by proposing a threesome, hoping to keep others apart to match his own miserable instinct to run away from everything (and keeping them from confronting their problems like adults). It’s a very sobering lesson from a very absurd movie, but still one worth noting, even if substance abuse isn’t your method of running away from things.
Almost as bad as running away is being fearful of the things you want crumbling against adversity, something that Stoller tackles in the surprisingly heavy Five-Year Engagement (written by himself and Jason Segel). In that movie, Tom (Jason Segel) and Violet (Emily Blunt) continuously put off their marriage due to family deaths and career conflicts, and in the process cause a ton of strain on their relationship. Both are fearful of being resented by the other for holding them back, but that fear ends up preventing them from having what they really want, which causes more anxiety than anything else. Meanwhile, Tom’s friend Alex (Chris Pratt) knocks up Violet’s sister Suzie (Alison Brie) and they quickly get married and start a family, because rather than let the unexpected elements ruin everything they take them in stride and embrace them, and end up happier for it. These two opposing approaches are best summarized in an equally hilarious and heartfelt conversation between Violet and Suzie (using Elmo voices) where Suzie tells Violet to shit or get off the pot. It’s something that Violet eventually does, and while she and Tom might not have everything that they want, they have each other for good, and that makes all the difference.
All of which brings us back to Forgetting Sarah Marshall (written by Segel), Stoller’s first directorial effort. It’s a movie that explores what settling does to us, with Peter’s (Segel again) relationship with the titular Sarah (Kristen Bell) initially presented as an externalization for his lack of effort as a musician. But in the end, Sarah tells Peter that the biggest problem in their relationship was how listless Peter was, revealing that Peter was his own biggest enemy. In being dumped by Sarah and then taking a chance with Rachel (Mila Kunis), Peter finds the confidence to fully pursue his true creative passion. The end result is Peter’s absurd Dracula puppet musical, which drips with such passion and enthusiasm that we as the movie audience can’t help but find it terrific, and feels like the great personal accomplishment it is. Peter’s arc reminds us more than anything to keep pursuing what you want and don’t let yourself be held back, especially by yourself.
Throughout all these movies, Stoller has found stories that show the biggest impediment to making it in the Adult World is our instinct to run away from our problems- and sometimes even our dreams- for fear of further hurt. Stoller’s collective solution through these films is to embrace what being an Adult can be, and to make the most of what happens to us whether we plan for it or not. I feel confident in saying that Stoller will always be a comedy director that I’ll want to hear from; and while I don’t know how Black & White (his period cop movie with Seth Rogen and Kevin Hart) will tie into this recurring focus of his, I’m sure that it’ll have a mature message beneath all the R-rated craziness. More than anything, Stoller’s work reminds me that I shouldn’t run away from the difficulties of, say, trying to write a screenplay, and that just because I’ve found stability as an Adult doesn’t mean I should rest on my laurels (such as they are). Being an Adult means a lot of good things, but they also come with the responsibility of being honest with myself, something I won’t soon forget.