Great news. This Neighbors is a far, far more satisfying event than the ill-fated Neighbors of 1981. That Neighbors was John G. Avildsen’s (Rocky) farce about a swinging Dan Aykroyd moving next door to a straight-laced John Belushi. It was terrible, just plain stupid comedy stuff that relied on the popularity of its leads at the time to overcome the movie’s undone script. Also there were wigs and chintzy music cues like “Stayin’ Alive” from the Bee Gees when that reference was already stale enough. The less said about that vehicle, the better. Yet that movie is the enduring template for the star-driven concept comedy. Hot actors and even noteworthy directors take on a simple, describable, and marketable screenplay, usually a hot spec from a non-established (read: likely inexpensive) writer. Think Wedding Crashers, Due Date, The Change-Up, Twins, and the titles go on. Yeesh, those titles cut to the chase, don’t they? Results often vary.
This summer’s Neighbors sits snugly in that mold. This time, you’ve got the inimitable Seth Rogen and the burgeoning Zac Efron working around a pretty straightforward script from newcomers Brendan O’Brien and Andrew Jay Cohen.
Rogen is Mac, a young married man with a beautiful, perfectly matched wife, Kelly (Rose Byrne) and a cute newborn baby named Stella. The couple is affable enough, just trying to grow. Seth Rogen, being a particularly good-natured man-child, plays Mac as having maturity pains trying to get on board with becoming domesticated, but for the most part, the family is happy in their new home with their new roles.
Enter tank-topped meat-head Teddy (Efron) and his fraternity, Delta Psi. The frat is moving in next door to Mac and Kelly, complete with Wolf Of Wall Street-levels of hard partying and heavy drug consumption, and they want to turn the house and its neighborhood into a public forum for debauchery. They’re not into the shenanigans of ‘70s and ‘80s frat comedies. Delta Si is aggressive and nuts and looking to break new grounds in partying, whatever that means. Essentially Teddy and his bros want to turn the block into a non-stop nightmare for a young couple with a newborn baby living next door.
Initially, the new neighbors make nice over a party. Teddy and his vice president Pete (Dave Franco) know full well that Mac and Kelly are potential threats if left unhappy by their party proclivities. Mac and Kelly know that they’re living next to a fraternity that has no qualms about doing everything up to 11, 12, and even 13. Initially, Teddy and Mac are fine, even cool with each other. Mac gets to cling onto what little of his youth is left in hanging with the frat, and Teddy fearfully (but respectfully) sees what might be his future in Mac.
Alas, matters dissolve, the cops get called, and everything goes giddily to hell with breathtaking speed.
From there, Neighbors turns into a series of graphic and extreme pranks as Teddy and Mac attempt to one-up the other. Never has a college comedy felt this aggressive, which is to the film’s benefit and detriment.
Nicholas Stoller, an underrated comic filmmaker (Get Him to the Greek, The Five-Year Engagement), tries to line the proceedings with a hint of prescient story-telling about transitions and fears for the future, but that gets weighed down in 90 minutes of packing in goofs. For as much as Stoller wants to elevate the high concept with memorable raunchiness and tight storytelling, the film only flies so often. It puts out too much and gives back too little. Teddy’s future is under-explored, and Mac’s worries end too tidily. The film wants the big laugh and the big revelation at the same time, but never quite gets it.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t meet certain requirements for a comedy, which is to be funny, and Neighbors is, half the time. It tries so damn hard, and even when it’s familiarly foul it’s still a romp.
Rogen and Efron use their contrasting bodies (a keg belly and six-pack, respectively) as sight gags of a higher order. At the risk of sounding crass, let’s be vague and say that the male member becomes an unusual highlight and distinguishing marker in a film looking to stand out in a post-Apatovian world. Seriously, there’s a ton of wiener jokes, and well, they’re almost all funny. If there’s a metaphor to all of that about boyhood and masculinity, go right ahead and tell me about it. Weed and breast milk jokes, more sporadically. Come to think of it, maybe Community’s Shirley Bennett was right. After Scary Movie, there’s no room left for subtlety.