'Neighbors 2': When Did Rose Byrne Get to Be So Funny?

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  • Rose Byrne
    Rose Byrne
    Australian actress
  • Seth Rogen
    Seth Rogen
    Canadian actor and stand-up comedian
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Back in 2010, it would have seemed absurd to suggest that Rose Byrne was one of the funniest people in movies, what with a filmography dotted with titles like City of Ghosts and The Dead Girl. And yet in the six years since, the Australian-born actress has fashioned what may the most formidable (and unlikely) funny-woman resume in Hollywood — a development she adds to this weekend, when she re-teams with Seth Rogen in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.

In the highly anticipated sequel to 2014’s hit, Byrne reprises her role as suburban wife Kelly Radner, a character who is introduced ruining sex with her husband (Seth Rogen) by vomiting directly into his face. Such an inauspicious entrance is part and parcel of an anything-goes performance, as the 30-something parents played by Byrne and Rogen again must contend with a rowdy college Greek organization living next door — in this case, a fledgling sorority led by Chloë Grace Moretz that wants to party as hard as the boys do.

Whether donning a cheerleading outfit while pregnant to infiltrate a university event, or none-too-subtly ogling the chiseled body of enemy-turned-ally Teddy (Zac Efron) — who, like every character here, is struggling to come to grips with adult responsibility — Byrne is a droll riot, equally comfortable trading witty retorts with her co-star or, as the aforementioned puking gag makes clear, humiliating herself in pursuit of a gross-out laugh.

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It’s part of a surprise turn for the actress whose early career was spent in dramatic vehicles of a somewhat standard sort. Byrne initially came to mainstream audiences’ attention alongside Brad Pitt in 2004’s Wolfgang Peterson war epic Troy before treading water in a few subpar projects. (Wicker Park, anyone? I didn’t think so.) Nonetheless, the latter half of the ’00s would find her hitting a solid serious-minded groove in Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi saga Sunshine and, the same year, in 28 Weeks Later, a zombie-outbreak thriller that arguably managed to outshine its predecessor.

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Genre work would continue with Knowing — a 2009 apocalyptic mystery that paired her with Hollywood’s most eccentric leading man, Nicolas Cage — and 2010’s Insidious, James Wan’s horror-series precursor to The Conjuring. However, those films, as well as X-Men: First Class and the inevitable Insidious: Chapter 2, largely required the actress to act like a grave or grieving cipher whose primary function was to help propel the plot forward. While she had far more to work with for multiple seasons on TV’s Damages (opposite Glenn Close), her cinematic output amounted to functional roles that seemed determined to keep her from expressing anything like a unique personality trait.

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It all began to turn with 2010s Get Him to the Greek, which put Byrne alongside co-stars Russell Brand and Jonah Hill as a profane sexpot clown who got the laughs in a series of distinctly NSFW R-rated music videos (available here, here, and with Brand here and here).

Related: Five Clips That Show Rose Byrne Is a Comic Genius

A year later, her reinvention truly took flight thanks to Bridesmaids, 2011’s paradigm-upending comedy from director Paul Feig and star Kristen Wiig. As Helen, a wealthy, uppity bitch who becomes the rival to Wiig’s Annie over their engaged best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph), Byrne was deliriously unshackled from her prior dull girlfriend/mother/stalker parts, exploiting her svelte, dainty beauty and refined attitude for outrageously obnoxious comedy. Given the chance to use her fetching physical attributes for self-ridiculing purposes rather than merely as ornamentation for stolid drama, Byrne fit right in with her formidable comedy co-stars, and Bridesmaids quickly led to a raft of roles that similarly put her off-the-wall instincts to good use.

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Be it standing out as the only serviceable component of the dreary Google-commercial-masquerading-as-a-movie The Internship, playing off Nick Kroll’s absurd man-child in Adult Beginners, or snatching the goofball spotlight from Seth Rogen in 2014’s original Neighbors, Byrne has established herself as one of Hollywood’s most versatile and daring comedic actresses. That transformation peaked with last year’s Spy, in which she delivered a hilarious tour-de-force as a villainous weirdo pitted against her Bridesmaids colleague Melissa McCarthy. Especially in that 2015 Paul Feig espionage-adventure spoof, Byrne’s capacity for being simultaneously sultry and stupid-level silly was on full, unbridled, scene-stealing display.

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As corroborated by sturdy turns in 2014’s This Is Where I Leave You and this year’s The Meddler (with Susan Sarandon), Byrne is adept at channeling her daffier impulses for smaller-scale indie dramedies that are as sweet as they are ridiculous. But it’s outlandish films like Neighbors 2 — a high-profile would-be summer blockbuster that champions a woman’s right to be as wild, immature, and out of control as a man — that confirms the actress has long since evolved from being simply a foil for other funny people in rude, crude efforts. In 2016, let’s call her what she is: a bona fide comedy star.

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Watch an exclusive clip of Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen from ‘Neighbors 2: