I don’t consider myself a comedy purist by any stretch of the imagination. Some of my favorite comedies are of the low-brow variety.
The genre goes through cycles, and right now it feels like we’re nearing the end of the Judd Apatow age, which has propelled the likes of Seth Rogen and James Franco to superstardom. I was encouraged early on with Apatow’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Superbad.” Since, we’ve gotten a few inspired laugh-riots like “Bridesmaids,” but their recent output feels re-treaded. “Neighbors” takes a familiar premise and strains for nuance but delivers nothing unexpected.
Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) play a married couple with a newborn baby. Mac works a boring 9-to-5 job and Kelly stays at home with the baby. Their status-quo suburban life drags.
Their by-the-book life gets a fresh kick when fraternity brothers of Delta Psi Beta purchase the house next door. There’s immediate well-placed apprehension to this arrangement. Teddy (Zac Efron) and the boys want to end their college careers with some legendary parties and epic acts of insanity that will make them campus legends. Things go smoothly at first; Mac and Kelly are drawn into the hard-partying lifestyle of their neighbors like moths to flame. Teddy and his friends come as just the ticket to spice up the young couple’s life; however, there’s only so much alcohol consumption and recreational drug use Mac and Kelly can tolerate.
Soon enough, they embark on recapturing their elderhood and return to their peaceful existence. When Mac and Kelly start to complain about the noise, things go from friendly to furious. Their conventional methods prove ineffective, which leads them to resort to sneakier plans to try and oust the frat brothers.
Most of the laughs from “Neighbors” stem from the friction between Mac and Teddy. Both represent a different a different cycle of the male experience. Teddy acts young, dumb, and clueless about his future. He’s fearless in a way that only the immature can be.
Mac already has lived through that phase and comes out the other side as a much more humble human being. He is well-aware of the mortality of youth and how finite those days truly are. Teddy stands as a reminder of Mac’s irresponsible, carefree days. Mac acts as a sobering reminder to Teddy that all these good days will eventually end. There’s some good subtext at play in a very crass, uneven movie.
Rogen continues to challenge the concept of good taste with a number of gags that are both funny and cringe-inducing. I hardly consider myself the barometer of the unacceptablel I tolerate the obscene quite well. Even someone well-versed in working blue could recognize just how hard the entire creative team is trying to be perceived as obscenely edgy.
Some scenes feel really forced and mostly involve penises, both real and manufactured. Few films have felt so committed to phallic-related funnies. “Neighbors” contains so many dick jokes it could have been billed above Dave Franco’s name (James Franco’s li’l bro takes on the role of one of the frat brothers).
The movie does have some funny bits, but it makes audiences work for it. “Neighbors” never feels like it has a rhythm. It’s a series of interconnected gags with varying degrees of success. The story gives filmmakers an excuse to stage a prank war. Even though some efforts are made, the story seems to take a backseat to setting up grotesque gags that are more miss than hit.
I didn’t dislike “Neighbors.” In its own stupid way, it’s kind of endearing. I like the core concept at play: the idea of a father dealing with newfound responsibility by waging war against a bunch of drunken frat boys. Yet, the film never embraces the lingering dark comedy just waiting to be tapped into.
I wish the character arc presented a resentful Mac, who hates these kids for still having their future ahead of them, and frat boys, who wanted to destroy Mac in hopes of never becoming that lame. But we don’t get that. We get a light, slight stoner version of the premise. While it’s good for the occasional laugh, potential existed for it to be something more. And that’s disappointing.
Starring Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron
Directed by Nicholas Stoller