Written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien
Directed by Nicholas Stoller
“Haven’t you ever seen a Kevin James movie before?” This off-kilter question, courtesy of Seth Rogen’s lead character, is at the core of the most intriguing scene in Neighbors. This latest entry in the Apatow-esque brand of film comedy (although Judd Apatow isn’t credited as a producer) speaks a surprising amount of truth in moments like this one, where Rogen and Rose Byrne, playing his wife, argue about the power dynamic in their relationship. The rest of Neighbors doesn’t approach this mix of insight and incisive humor, but is agreeably funny if not memorably so. Its high-concept setup aside, Neighbors is at its best when attempting to develop the stock characters placed within.
Rogen is Mac Radner here, a rowdy schlub who works a boring desk job and is struggling to transition into fatherhood, just as Byrne’s Kelly tries to accept the apparent boredom of motherhood to their newborn daughter. Their suburban life is upended when the house next door is sold to a predictably louche and raucous fraternity led by Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco); they aim to get their picture on the frat’s wall for some hopefully iconic twist on partying, something new a la beer pong or the toga party, both of which got their ancestors on the wall. But that means Mac and Kelly, who desperately want to seem cool to the frat brothers, have to act stodgy and old in reclaiming the quiet atmosphere of their neighborhood. Soon, a rivalry springs up between Mac and Teddy, each of them escalating the aggression to outlandish extremes.
Neighbors, like most of the comedies featuring Rogen or other regulars from the modern comedy scene, name-checks a ton of pop-culture touchstones, from Game of Thrones to Breaking Bad, if only to boast its currency and modern flair. But the film shines most when it acknowledges the pointlessness of predicted power structures in institutions like marriage or academia. Just as Mac and Kelly argue about how they should be defined as a husband and wife—one of the film’s best choices is making Kelly as much of an active participant in the rivalry as Mac is; she is the opposite of the “nagging wife” character type—Teddy and Pete end up battling over what being the president and vice president of a fraternity mean as they approach graduation. The script, by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, isn’t exactly subtle in these sequences, but there’s a welcome level of honesty in the interactions, amidst the outrageous comic setpieces.
But, of course, a movie like Neighbors needs to rely as much on its setpieces as on its snuck-in exploration of the modern American male. As expected, there’s one body-specific sequence, akin to the waxing scene in The 40 Year-Old Virgin, except here, it involves Mac being forced to help Kelly deal with a pressing breast-milk situation. And even though Mac and Kelly go head-to-head with Teddy and Pete, there are more than a few party sequences where everyone hangs out and gets wasted, enlivened via hand-held camerawork employed by director Nicholas Stoller. Most of the funniest moments are those that feel improvised—at 97 minutes, this is one of the leanest mainstream comedies of recent memory, thankfully—as they’re so unattached to the plot mechanics. (The highlight is a riff between one of the frat brothers and an oddball cop played by comedian Hannibal Buress, regarding the comic-strip cat Garfield.)
There’s a mild familiarity to the proceedings in Neighbors—the only real new face in this brand of comedy is Efron, who utilizes a disturbing intensity to imbue Teddy with a somewhat relatable type of antagonism—but it still manages to be consistently funny, if not hitting the high points of other recent comedies, such as Stoller’s somewhat underrated Get Him to the Greek. If nothing else, Neighbors doesn’t deny that the Peter Pan complex that has been part of the recent era of comedies has to end someday; not only do we see the fresh-faced kid from High School Musical as the avatar of the current college student, but there’s Rogen as a moderately contented father and even Lisa Kudrow as a headline-obsessed dean of students. For better or worse, Neighbors is honest in terms of depicting its characters accepting that they have to grow up. In this movie’s world, staying young is fun, but gets exhausting after a while.
— Josh Spiegel