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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Review: Neighbors (2014)

* * *

Director: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Seth Rogan, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne

It may seem odd to describe as "ambitious" a film which relies so heavily on humor deriving from bodily fluids and pratfalls, but Nicholas Stoller's bro versus slightly older bro comedy Neighbors is just that. It could, quite easily, have let the premise - frat house moves into family-oriented neighborhood, war ensues - do all the work for it and ended up with a passably entertaining comedy that would have raked in money. Instead, it uses that premise as a springboard for a comedic take on what inter-generational conflict looks like in an era when "adolescence" lasts until about age 35. This isn't to say that Neighbors is mind-blowing in its thematic depth or even especially thoughtful in its examination of growing up, but it gets points for having more on its mind than getting from one outlandish gag to the next.

As Neighbors opens, its central characters, Mac (Seth Rogan) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), have attained all the cultural markers of "adulthood:" jobs, marriage, house, and now a baby. Though they can't help but feel like they're missing out, as they're no longer able to drop everything and go out with their friends and party all night, they're generally happy until the house next door is bought by a fraternity. Though Mac and Kelly try to make nice with the frat's leaders Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco) - and end up spending a night partying with them - the frat's promises to keep the noise levels down to a reasonable level are quickly forgotten, prompting Mac and Kelly to call the police to try to reign the frat in. When a police officer (a criminally underused Hannibal Buress) arrives to shut the party down, Teddy learns that Mac and Kelly were behind the call and sees it as a declaration of war, resulting in a campaign of harassment against the couple by the fraternity. When Mac and Kelly take their complaints to the college dean (Lisa Kudrow), they learn that the college has a three strikes policy and that while the frat already has one strike against them, the complaints brought forth by Mac and Kelly aren't considered major enough to require intervention by the college.

Feeling that they have no other option but to take things into their own hands, Mac and Kelly attempt to fight back against the frat, devising various strategies which they believe will result in the frat being damaged beyond repair. They attempt to flood the frat out by breaking a water main, they attempt to break up the frat's leadership by finding a way to come between Teddy and Pete, and they attempt to get one of the pledges to turn against the frat and help them get evidence of the hazing going on inside the house. Meanwhile, Teddy continues to lead the frat in its campaign against the couple, the intensity rising to the point where Kelly begins to feel unsafe in the house and briefly leaves with the baby. This is short-lived, however, and Mac and Kelly soon get back together and focus their efforts on making one last attempt to destroy the frat, using their knowledge that the frat is now down to their last strike to trick them into throwing a blow out party which will result in the organization being shut down by the college.

Neighbors is a dumb movie in a great many ways, and it introduces elements into its plot that it then shies away from actually exploring - for example, the film makes a point of how Pete has been affected by his parents' divorce and has him express second thoughts about the lengths the frat is going to when he sees that it temporarily splits Mac and Kelly up... but then it does nothing more with that; Mac and Kelly reconcile at lightening speed, their internal "conflict" resolving itself - but it also offers some insight into the difficulty of reaching the next plateau of adulthood in the age of "eternal childhood." Because their friends are all still living in a responsibility-free, party all the time stage, Mac and Kelly feel compelled to prove that they can still hang, that they're still cool, that they haven't become their parents. They want to remain culturally relevant and in the social loop, even if deep down they know that that's not possible. The older you get, the further your frame of cultural reference gets from what's currently popular and the less you're able to identify with what speaks to a younger demographic. The Simpsons summed this phenomenon up perfectly with the assertion, "I used to be with it, but then they changed what 'it' was. Now, what I'm with isn't it, and what's 'it' seems weird and scary" - Neighbors is about this fear of being left behind, of getting "old" and of not mattering anymore in terms of determining popular culture. Mac and Kelly want to hang on to what remains of their extended adolescence so that they can still think of themselves as "cool," though they discover through the course of the film that not only does that not matter anymore, but that they actually don't even really want it. Their catharsis in the film comes not from victory over the frat, but from admitting to each other that they like "old people" things. Now they can move forward and conquer their real fear, which is the fact that they are now responsible for the life of a little human being. Built around an extreme prank war, Neighbors revels in kids stuff, but it's ultimately about how scary it is to become an adult and be weighted down with adult expectations.

Written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, Neighbors is a very funny film which uses its three principle actors to great effect. Rogan does his usual, expected thing here and is very funny doing it, but Efron and Byrne are comedic revelations. While Efron has struggled to make the transition from teenage heartthrob to grown up actor, he more than holds his own against Rogan and turns in a performance that is, at times, surprisingly dark. Byrne, meanwhile, provides the film with some of its funniest moments, the first of which comes from her sharper-than-intended request that the frat "keep it down." While she never gets quite as much to do as either Rogan or Efron, she proves incredibly game when it comes to the film's more outrageous humor and can definitely turn a phrase in such a way as to wring the most comedy out of it. With the actors firing on all cylinders and Stoller providing solid direction that keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, Neighbors is easily one of the year's funniest comedies, even if it can't be accused of being one of the most sophisticated.

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