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Script Matters: ‘Neighbors’ Proves That Low-Brow Comedies Can Have Smart Scripts, Too

Script Matters: ‘Neighbors’ Proves That Low-Brow Comedies Can Have Smart Scripts, Too

By J. R. Kinnard

Much like the horror genre, comedy presents an opportunity to explore deeper themes within the confines of an otherwise simple premise. Wes Craven once said you can do anything you want in a horror movie, “as long as you scare the bejesus out of people 6 or 10 times.” The same could be said for generating laughs in a high-concept comedy. On that basis, Neighbors probably squeaks by with 6 solid laughs and plenty of goodwill. More importantly, it boasts a bitingly perceptive script about the painful transition to adulthood and the extreme lengths to which some people will go to avoid it.

Neighbors is the story of two loving couples who can’t let go of their youth. The first is a married couple, Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne). Though they’ve faithfully followed society’s script for a successful life – marriage, job, house, debt, and newborn baby – they’re obviously struggling with the subtext. Namely, reaching your goals doesn’t necessarily mean you’re prepared for the consequences, and it sure as hell doesn’t guarantee happiness.

Kelly & Mac

The second couple, starring in their own personal bro-mance, is Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco). They preside over Delta Psi Beta; a proud fraternal institution that (supposedly) invented such invaluable binge-drinking staples as beer pong and toga parties. With one year remaining as Delta president, Teddy is determined to leave his own legacy of debauchery. He issues a challenge to his brethren: Make history this year or overdose trying!

When the brothers Delta move next door to the Radners, it doesn’t take long for the sparks to fly. Sharing the block with Animal House doesn’t conform to Mac and Kelly’s domestic checklist, while Teddy and Pete aren’t about to let some old farts ruin their quest for drunken immortality. Shenanigans quickly ensue, with the Radners scheming to revoke Delta’s charter and Teddy retaliating with increasingly dangerous pranks. It’s a simple premise that sounds relatively predictable. Luckily, the script has a bit more than brainless depravity on its mind.

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Screenwriters, Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, are graduates from the School of Apatow, and their script bears several hallmarks of an Apatow affair. Most notably, the actors (especially Rogen) are free to improvise within the framework of a scripted scene. Also, each character is infused with a strong sense of humanity. It’s easy to imagine these characters getting along under different circumstances, which lends more tension to the eventual conflict.


Where director, Nicholas Stoller, diverges from Apatow, however, is how strenuously he maintains thematic control over the script’s premise. Even within highly improvised scenes, he makes sure to include the narrative nuggets necessary to keep things moving forward. Rogen, too, should be commended for his restraint. It’s obvious this material resonates with him, so he expertly keeps his riffing on point.

As with most good comedies, the humor in Neighbors flows from the characters rather than the gags. Here, the script wisely focuses on the dynamics between Mac/Kelly and Teddy/Pete, using both dialogue and detailing to build a strong foundation for the jokes and drama to follow. These aren’t just characters telling jokes; they’re real people with real insecurities, hopes and dreams (even if most of those dreams are idiotic).

Rogen and Byrne are dynamite together as Mac and Kelly. They love their newborn daughter, Stella, but they’re also bored out of their minds. When they have sex, it has to be in exotic locations. “We’re so spontaneous!” Mac proclaims. “Who knows what we’ll be doing in 10 minutes!” Of course, the inquisitive gaze of Stella quickly puts an end to their spontaneous nookie session. The next morning, as Mac leaves for work, a forlorn Kelly jokingly asks if she can come along. Through subtle detailing, we understand that this is a young couple struggling to accept the illusion of domestic tranquility.

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Teddy & Pete

Likewise, Efron and Franco have great comedic chemistry. Their timing is impeccable, particularly when riffing on their “bro’s before ho’s” philosophy. The script also ensures they aren’t your typical frat-boy meatheads by sneaking in a few wrinkles and insecurities. Pete is especially thoughtful, resigned to the fact his carefree fraternity days are coming to an end. “In 2 weeks, none of this is going to matter,” he concedes. He accurately diagnosis that Teddy is uncertain about his future and lovingly urges him to “go to class sometime.” Cohen and O’Brien ingeniously weave these meaningful undercurrents into the action, as opposed to giving them a ham-fisted Sandler-esque treatment.

The relationship between these two warring couples is a consistent treat throughout the film. The screenwriters mine both the differences and the parallels, often using our expectations against us. For instance, Mac’s attempts to jazz up his vocabulary around the frat house are just as cringe-inducing as you would expect. However, the frat brother’s saccharine approximation of adult civility is just as nauseating, if not more subtle. Though separated by only 10 years or so, these couples might as well be from different planets.

And yet, as different as the couples may be, the writers still manage to build parallels between them that enhance both the comedy and the drama. Perhaps the best comedic parallel is how Kelly and Teddy hatch their diabolical schemes. When Teddy enters a trancelike state muttering, “Dicks in our hands,” and Kelly responds with her own hypnotic mantra, “Bro’s before ho’s,” you know these are kindred spirits in deviousness. For dramatic effect, we get consecutive scenes with the two couples bickering amongst themselves. You can see not only the delicate fabric of their relationships tearing apart, but the individual strain they are under. This sets the stage for future conflict by underscoring each character’s desperation.

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To further build the tension, the script cleverly brings these two couples together at a crossroads in their lives; a moment when both are rebelling against the roles and expectations of adulthood. The only character remotely prepared is Pete, who attends job fairs and seems locked into architecture school. This is in stark contrast to Teddy, who crumbles when a job recruiter informs him that he’s “too dumb” to satisfy their minimum requirements. Likewise, Mac and Kelly take every opportunity they can to revert to juvenile behavior. They eagerly accept every invitation to party at the Delta house, even as they’re covertly battling to have them evicted. This delicious irony adds an extra layer to the story, making you question which couple is more misguided and delusional.

Delta house mod

Some of the best scenes in the movie, in fact, feature the Radners partying at the frat house. These scenes work because the screenwriters took the time to detail Mac and Kelly’s yearning to break free from their domestic “bliss.” It’s a sublime pleasure watching Byrne get completely wasted while having one ear glued to her baby monitor. She may be tethered to that monitor, but her exploits in the Delta house are an unmistakable middle finger to the sleeping infant next door.

As each couple struggles harder to resist the pull of their responsibilities, the feud between them escalates. This highlights a recurring motif in the movie and a brilliant device by the screenwriters; the concept of “The Upper Hand.” With each successive round of pranks, each couple re-establishes their control over the battlefield. “Delta Psi has the upper hand!” Mac proclaims after a hidden airbag sends him rocketing into the ceiling. “The old people have the upper hand!” Teddy laments as the police arrive at his doorstep. Back and forth it goes to ever more ridiculous heights.

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Ultimately, it’s a losing battle for everyone involved because their true opponent – age – will always win. The inevitability of growing older makes the tone in Neighbors darker than similar slob comedies. When Teddy makes lurid suggestions that his Delta brothers will enjoy watching Stella mature into a young woman, you get a genuine sense of uneasiness. Just as when Mac and Kelly infiltrate the Delta house for one final battle, you wonder how far they’ll go. The writers understand that more tension equals bigger laughs, and a final showdown between Teddy and Mac releases all the tension in one uproarious explosion.

This isn’t to say that Neighbors is a ‘think piece.’ Far from it. It’s a low-brow comedy that isn’t above going for cheap laughs, usually involving sight gags or drug humor. That humor is augmented, however, by a clever script that works on multiple levels. On a simplistic level, it’s the battle for peace and quiet between a suburban couple and the wild fraternity next door. On a deeper level, though, it’s about two couples rebelling against adulthood. Luckily for the audience, adulthood loses a few hilarious battles before finally getting the upper hand.

J.R. Kinnard