By R. David

Viewed May 9, 2014

“Neighbors” is a fairly run of the mill comedy of errors and rivalry, somewhat elevated by its endearing cast and a few clever bits of dialog sprinkled throughout the script.  For the most part though, this story of stressed-out new parents whose lives are turned upside down when a fraternity moves in next door is typically silly and predictable fluff.  That’s not always a bad thing – and “Neighbors” is certainly funnier and tad more ambitious than many of its slipshod ilk – but it doesn’t make for a very exciting or memorable comedy; which is unfortunate because Seth Rogan has been involved in a handful of some of the most surprisingly authentic comedies of the past decade.  “Neighbors” has the facade of some of his earlier films, but not a lick of their sharp observations or – most glaring of all – hilarity.

Rogan and Rose Byrne (“Bridesmaids”) star as Mac and Kelly, a mid-30s couple raising their first child in a new home when the Delta Psi Beta fraternity moves in next door.  Naturally, all the frat wants to do is party late into the night, and all Mac and Kelly want to do is get some sleep (and keep their baby asleep).  In one of Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien’s screenplay’s cleverest touches, Mac and Kelly aren’t simply a couple of ranting, curmudgeonly party-poopers.  They are still young enough – and stressed-out enough by life as new parents – to remember a time not that long ago when they enjoyed the college-party lifestyle.  The film has them initially trying to befriend, and then play along with their new neighbors.  Mac, particularly, is taken with frat president Teddy, played by Zac Efron.  In the film’s single funniest exchange, the two actors riff on their generational differences in a pot-filled haze which ultimately degenerates into an argument over who had the better Batman actor growing up.  Mac and Kelly assume both parties have bonded and reached an understanding, but the fraternity takes advantage of the couples’ wannabe-hip attitude and their incessant partying and noise quickly creates a grow rift that eventually spirals out of control, with Mac and Kelly doing all they can to get the frat dissolved by the university due to their rule-breaking ways and the frat responding by assaulting the couple with a series of elaborate and embarrassing pranks.

“Neighbors” is all premise and very little actual plot.  Maybe the filmmakers figured the target audience would be fine with a basic outline of a story as an excuse to hang a bunch of would-be hilarious hijinks on; but as Rogan has proved many times in the past, the secret to the best comedies lies in having a complete and genuine narrative, fully-drawn characters and meaningful stakes in their conflicts.  Original ideas help too, but if you are going to romp through the tried and true, it helps to do it in new, interesting and honest ways.   Rogan’s films with Judd Apatow, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked-Up”, are a perfect example of this.  Even Rogan’s essentially-one-big-in-joke “This Is the End” was one of the most riotously funny movies to come out of Hollywood in recent years, mainly because of its talented cast’s improvisational comedic riffing, but also largely thanks to the film’s inspired, fearless nature.  There was a sense that everyone was sort of flying by the seat of their pants making  that movie, and it came through in exciting, kinetic fashion on screen. 

“Neighbors” has hints of all of those films’ assets, but it feels more like one of their many imitators than their equal.  Maybe it’s because the only through line to them here is Rogan himself.  None of his usual on-screen cohorts are here for support, he wasn’t involved in writing the script, and this is not a Judd Apatow joint, which is maybe the biggest difference between a standard issue movie like this and those Rogan has made in the past.  “Neighbors” is directed by Nicholas Stoller who helmed the Apatow-produced “Forgetting Sarah Marshal”.  He’s learned a few of Apatow’s tricks:  it’s obvious in some scenes he’s letting his cast riff and improv with the material, the eclectic supporting cast (which includes Dave Franco, Lisa Kudrow), stabs at tipping genre conventions (Efron is a walking fratboy cliché in terms of appearance, but many of his actions and the attitudes toward him by other students go against the grain of the college/party comedy rules).  That’s all good stuff.  But it’s also simply window-dressing for the far less ambitious comedy “Neighbors” actually is.  If it were actually the Apatow-minded comedy it asserts itself as, it would have spent some time exploring all of those things, not just tossing them out there.  Simply suggesting you know the theme of your movie is shopworn is not the same thing as doing something different.   For instance, as much as “Neighbors” purports to be a comedy about parenthood, it just nails all the traditional tropes of those conflicts:  no time for themselves, unspontaneous sex, boredom, etc.  These things are mentioned or played for the obvious laughs, but never explored or tipped on their ear.  Contrast that with the likes of “Knocked Up” and you’ll understand the difference.

Rogan and (even, surprisingly) Efron are affable and likeable performers (as is the rest of the cast, particularly Byrne who does more for the script than it does for her), and there’s a sense that they are elevating the material on sheer will and talent alone.  There are laughs, clever dialog, interesting observations and good performances in “Neighbors”.  But all that only serves to make its tired premise, shoddy plotting, and predictable results that much more of a bummer. 

2½ Stars (Out of 4)

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