A film review by Craig J. Koban May 16, 2014 

NEIGHBORS jjj
½ 

2014, R, 96 mins.

 

Seth Rogen as Mac Radner  /  Rose Byrne as Kelly Radner  /  Zac Efron as Teddy Sanders  /  Dave Franco as Pete  /  Ike Barinholtz as Jimmy  /  Halston Sage as Brooke  /  Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Scoonie  /  Lisa Kudrow as Carol Gladstone  /  Hannibal Buress as Officer Watkins  /  Jason Mantzoukas as Dr. Theodorakis

Directed by Nicholas Stoller  /  Written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien

What NEIGHBORS does is not entirely novel (gee, yet another frat house/party comedy and one about warring neighbors to boot) and it’s almost impossible to reflect on the film without pondering past examples of the genre, such as ANIMAL HOUSE and OLD SCHOOL.  

Yet, what the film lacks in brazen originality it more than makes up for it in terms of its high and consistent laugh quotient and for the freshness of its approach to the otherwise generic material.  Yes, NEIGHBORS is a go-for-broke and never-look-back frat comedy of unrelenting lewdness, but it also has legitimately interesting things to say about the perils of getting older and starting a family while desperately trying to relate to a younger generation.  That, and it willfully and cheerfully bucks genre conventions at every turn with its characters, which gives the film a spark of audacious spontaneity that it needs. 

Plus, director Nicolas Stoller really knows how to maneuver around this type of material, having helmed such improvisational comedic gems like FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL and GET HIM TO THE GREEK, both of which delivered large laughs while having a wonderfully free-wheeling and loose approach; you never really knew where they were going, which is a tough act to pull off when comedies are concerned.  NEIGHBORS’s initial setup seems routine and paint-by-numbers, but the more it nimbly progresses the more unruly and unpredictable it becomes.  The impeccably well matched Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne play Mac and Kelly Radner, a couple in their thirties that have partaking in two of the biggest responsibilities of adulthood: parenthood and owning a home.  They are relatively content and truly love their new baby daughter, but gone are the days of youthful freedom.  Going out is next to impossible for them, seeing as their insecurity over leaving their infant with a sitter plagues them, and even having fun on the home front becomes trickier.  An introductory scene showing the difficulties of having sex while their child is in the vicinity starts the film’s hysterical - yet painfully truthful - tone. 

 

 

Even though their respective days are beset with stresses involving mounting mortgage bills, baby monitors, and breast pumps, Mac and Kelly seem to embrace it all in stride.  Yet, their cozy little suburban lifestyle is given the ultimate test by the appearance of moving trucks and what appears to be a college fraternity moving in next door.  “Delta Psi Beta” is led by the outwardly charming and kind, but inwardly hedonistic, beer guzzling, and skirt chasing Teddy (Zac Efron, whom Mac amusing describes as looking like he was “designed in a laboratory”) and his second-in-command, Pete (Dave “Brother of James” Franco).  Initially, Teddy extends an olive branch to his initially worried neighbors, especially after a relatively awkward first meeting that involves Mac and Kelly talking gangster and offer the fraternity weed as a house-warming gift.  Alas, the Radner's fears are very quickly verified when it becomes really, really clear that Teddy wants to turn his new home and the entire block into party central night after night.  Thus begins the war of the neighbors…and things get personal and ugly. 

NEIGHBORS takes great pains – more so than most other frat comedies – to really flesh out its characters on both sides of the fences, so to speak.  Stoller and his writers (Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien) introduce and develop the daily grind and fatigue of the Radners coping with their newfound duties as parents while trying to maintain some semblance of their lifestyle before it.  The film captures the minutia of early parenthood quite well and accurately.  Compellingly, Mac and Kelly don’t seem to want to let go of their more youthful pursuits and even succumb to attending one of Teddy’s early parties early on in the film, during which time they throw their inhibitions to the wind and gorge on alcohol and drugs (while, of course, keeping their baby monitor with them at all times).  Of course, Teddy uses photos taken of the inebriated Radners as blackmail when they later call the cops on them for subsequent loud party nights.  

The character dynamics are interesting too.  Seth Rogen can play man-child characters in his sleep, but Mac is a bit more well rounded than that, as he does what he can to maintain the façade of a mature husband and father while, deep down, still yearning to party like a college kid.  I liked the sly role reversal of Rose Byrne’s character, whom typically in other comedies would be the submissive, meek-minded and complaining wife persona, but instead is perhaps more shockingly foul-mouth, ill-tempered, and antagonistic than her hubby.  Byrne is an actress that has tiptoed between drama and comedy during her career (she’s perhaps best known for her funny turn in BRIDESMAIDS), but here she more than stakes a claim for herself as being as adept at leading the hilarious charge with the best of them.  A scandalous and sidesplitting scene involving her getting Mac to milk her (don’t ask) when her breast pump gets pooched is simultaneously intense and hilarious. 

Then there is Teddy himself, a character that just about any other screenplay would set up and define in the narrow confines of a one-note, frequently shirtless, and maliciously vengeful Alpha male partier.  Well, he’s is, per se, all of those things, but the subtlety of Efron’s performance is that there is a sincere attempt on his part to subvert our expectations of these type of characters and the clichés usually associated with them.  Yes, Teddy spends much of the film plotting his destruction of the Radners and engages in wholly unethical behavior, but deep down he’s vulnerable, uncertain, and has anxieties about his future post-college life.  Teddy gives the film a much needed dosage of unpredictability, and the manner that Efron and the writers humanize this thug to semi-endearing levels is to the film’s credit.  You kind of want to punch and hug this lug most of the time. 

I’ve left out details about the actual tit-for-tat social war between the neighbors, which would spoil most of the fun for you (granted, an elaborate prank utilizing multiple airbags is a giddy showstopper).  NEIGHBORS gets a bit lazy in a few areas (like, for instance, how just about no one else on the block voices a serious complaint against Delta Psi Beta) and the film ends on an awkwardly assembled couple of scenes.  Yet, at brisk 96 minutes, NEIGHBORS is the perfect length for comedies such as these and wholeheartedly delivers on its promises of hard R-rated shenanigans and all out debauchery without overstaying its welcome as far too many recent screen comedies have.  Stoller mixes the vulgar broadness of the comedy with the more sincere and introspective character moments and “young generation versus old” social commentary better than most, and the cast he assembles is razor sharp and on point throughout.  Just when you thought that the frat comedy genre had nothing new to offer filmgoers, along comes NEIGHBORS to raucously slap the status quo upside the head.  

Don’t get me wrong, though, the film still culminates with an epic brawl involving gigantic rubber dildos, so we still have that. 

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