One of my all-time favorite movies is Animal House, and in that 1978 movie, the fraternity brothers were the heroes. (Interestingly, I never had any interest in joining one during college.) We’re not that far removed from Old School, in which the anti-establishment, hard partying and brotherhood of the frat allowed for an escape from the prison of adulthood.
But in Neighbors, the fraternity — with its loud parties, lack of responsibility and disregard for authority — is portrayed as the villain. Maybe that’s an oversimplification. Director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement) doesn’t appear to be attempting any big cultural statement with his movie. It’s just how this particular story is framed.
The heroes are the young couple, Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) Radner, struggling with early parenthood and taking the very adult step of sinking all of their savings into a house. Yet like many fledgling parents, Mac and Kelly miss the life they’re seemingly leaving behind, the days when they can go to a club and get drunk or stoned. They have to be more “serious” now because they’re raising a child.
Those life choices are pushed right into their faces when a fraternity moves into the house next door. Obviously, the new parents are worried about the noise that could keep their baby awake and the parties that could leave trash all over the lawn. But there’s a part of them that would also love to go over there and party with the young crowd. More importantly, they want the affirmation of being considered cool by the college kids.
The initial scenes in which Mac and Kelly go next door to introduce themselves to the frat and try to seem like cool, understanding neighbors, while trying to ask for some civility and quiet, are absolutely painful to watch. Like the best awkward comedy, it’s almost not funny because it’s so uncomfortable.
Of course, it feels that way because it’s so true to life. Putting on a pair of bright sunglasses, wearing a baseball cap and trying to talk in cool lingo that sounds wincingly out of touch isn’t going to work well. Yet they’re still going to try, much like the sets of young parents we see out and about that are trying really hard to seem hip, despite pushing a stroller or toting their child in a baby carrier.
It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a rock band t-shirt, clunky glasses, knee-high boots or a newsboy cap. You’re still holding a baby, and there’s always something that’s going to be at least a little bit uncool about that. (And I say that as an uncle who’s often guilty of this while hanging out with his nieces in public.) Just embrace who you are, rather than try to be the person you were in your twenties. Ultimately, that’s what Neighbors is about and it works best when Rogen and Byrne have their quiet moments of uncertainty.
Rogen plays the overgrown manchild that he’s played in so many movies before, and it works for him once again here. The real star of the movie is Byrne, who’s shown throughout her career that she can do drama and comedy. You figure she’ll be the straight woman to Rogen’s goofball, but so often, she’s the one with the great line or slapstick moment. Sure, it doesn’t seem like a woman as beautiful as Kelly would marry a schlub like Mac. But together, they make a great couple.
Naturally, the movie still tries really hard to be a broad, raunchy comedy and succeeds in places. There are some really funny scenes and fortunately, not all of them have been shown in the trailers and commercials. Although those scenes (such as the airbag gags) are still funny when seeing them again, a testament to how creative and outrageous they are.
One of the movie’s funniest images is of Zac Efron and Dave Franco imitating Robert De Niro for a theme party. Yes, Efron looks amusing with his Taxi Driver Travis Bickle mohawk wig. And Franco is actually hilarious, imitating De Niro’s trademark frown as Meet the Parents‘ Jack Byrnes. But it’s basically a Saturday Night Live skit, not a memorable scene that does anything for the movie. That’s really the biggest problem with the movie. Neighbors is a collection of skits, some funny scenes held together by various transitions. It doesn’t hold together or flow as a story.
Honestly, I expected to laugh more. Maybe this is my problem more than the movie’s, but I was hoping for this to be perhaps the great comedy of the year. Wedged in between the releases of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Godzilla (and X-Men: Days of Future Past after that), Neighbors seemed like it could be a refreshing palate cleanser among all the summer blockbusters.
Instead, it’s really just an OK movie that could be largely forgotten by July, except among Rogen diehards or those who want to see Zac Efron with his shirt off. (And hey, the dude is cut, so I can’t fault you for that.)
Young couples with kids will probably enjoy this movie because the conflict between being responsible adults and fun-seeking hedonists rings so true for people in their late twenties and early thirties. (Hell, I’m older than that and I feel much the same way. But mostly because I just keep trying to put off adulthood, even without having kids.) I’ll actually recommend it to some friends and family because they’ll appreciate what Mac and Kelly are going through. Maybe that’s the crowd that will make this movie an enduring success.