NEIGHBORS Review: A Better Fence Would Have Made Better Neighbors
I give Zac Efron a lot of credit. After a string of single-episode appearances on numerous TV shows, the talented young star made it big as Troy Bolton in Disney’s High School Musical franchise. Since the 2008 conclusion to that trilogy, Efron has appeared in a dozen films, and his role choices suggest he’s making a concerted effort to do as many different types of films as possible, perhaps to distance himself from that squeaky-clean musical image.
His choices have run the genre gamut, including high-concept fantasies (17 Again); ensemble pieces (New Year’s Eve); historical dramas (Parkland); animation (The Lorax); rom-coms (That Awkward Moment); and thrillers (The Paperboy). He doesn’t show signs of changing his patternless pattern, either. His latest effort is Neighbors, a film from the producers of This is the End, Pineapple Express, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Add Frat Pack comedy to Efron’s resumé.
Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) are in a new phase of their lives. They have recently had a beautiful baby girl, and while Mac works in Corporate America, Kelly is a stay-at-home mom. This adjustment to parenthood and greater responsibilities is sidetracked when a fraternity – Delta Psi Beta – purchases the house next door to the Radners.
Fearful that late-night partying at the frat house will prevent their baby (and by extension, them) from sleeping at night, Mac and Kelly introduce themselves to fraternity president Teddy (Efron) and his veep Pete (Dave Franco) and ask the guys to be mindful of the noise because of the baby. The brothers agree, but repeat offenses eventually drive the Radners to call the cops, which raises the ire of the frat, which sets off a battle between the two factions to see who can ruin whose life to a quicker and greater extent.
Where Zac Efron is testing himself and trying an assortment of things to broaden his career and avoid being typecast, Seth Rogen is pretty much cashing checks, portraying the lovable oaf-stoner he’s become synonymous with. The difference between his role here and previous incarnations might be what t-shirt he’s wearing. Rogen’s presentation of The Seth Rogen Character is one of the problems with Neighbors, a film that wants to live on both sides of the fence, but isn’t made by filmmakers skilled enough to pull it off.
On one side of the fence is the coming-of-middle-age story. The film’s open is built on this premise, presenting a couple whose self-indulgent lifestyle has changed with the arrival of their daughter. They cannot drop everything to go party like they used to, they tire easily, spontaneous sex is celebrated yet comes with new complications, and so on. There’s even a scene where Mac and his best friend Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz) get stoned while on break at work (surprise), suggesting that Mac is the partner in the marriage who is struggling to change. Had this depth been abandoned entirely once the battle between the Bluntfields and McBoys heated up, it would have been understood as nothing more than the path to the crazy. Instead, there are occasional reminders throughout the film that this is supposed to be deeper than a raunchy comedy. There’s a quick scene highlighting Kelly’s boredom with stay-at-home motherhood, a quick scene with Mac’s boss inviting Mac and family to a play date, a quickly resolved conflict between Mac and Kelly, etc. It’s as if someone behind the scenes said, “Oh hey, let’s not forget these people in this unreal situation have real problems,” so they threw in dashes of non-crazy as reminders, not as actual character development.
The same issue plagues the frat house. Teddy is looking at the end of college and a future without the frat house. While Pete has been balancing parties and studies, Teddy has not, and there are suggestions that Teddy is afraid that his future will look like Mac’s present. The problem, like the one with the Radners, is that these moments are inserted when it feels like the audience needs a reminder or when the action needs a break. It never fully commits, so it never rings true.
On the other side of the fence is the raucous, raunchy comedy that the film attempts to be. It has its moments and some of them are very raunchy (which is a good thing). Two of those bits include sex toys and there is even a Farrelly Brothers-inspired sight gag involving Kelly’s milk-engorged breasts that was shockingly funny. But the film relies on gags that range from tired to genuinely offensive.
Rogen’s stoner schtick reminds me of the SpongeBob SquarePants episode “Ripped Pants,” where the young sea dweller gets great laughs when his pants rip, so he continues to rip his pants ad nauseam until the gag devolves from funny to boring to annoying. The Seth Rogen Character long ago passed funny and has since whizzed by boring. Annoying is on the horizon.
Additionally, adults stammering through language they think is hip (“wiki-wiki-whazzup?” for example) to try to impress the youngsters is immeasurably stupid and the stuff of basic cable sitcoms. Speaking of things immeasurable, I understand they are trying to sell Teddy as uneducated, but it strains credulity that a college senior is so dumb that he doesn’t know that AT&T is cellular provider. My middle-schooler knows this.
And when are we going to grow up and stop turning men’s disgust with even a whiff of homoeroticism into a punch line? Apparently it’s okay for men to grab each other’s crotches to inflict pain, but once one of them gets a little aroused it turns into shouts of “Ew gross get away from me!” as a way to incite laughter from the crowd.
Rogen and the screenplay aside, the Teddy role is well-suited for Efron. While he is a physical specimen, he would not have been convincing as the school’s starting quarterback, so to make him the cool one (as opposed to the jock) was the way to go. Byrne also does quite well as she holds her own in a film that is both testosterone-fueled and stacked with players who have worked together frequently. The filmmakers also wisely elect to NOT make her eye-candy (except for one brief scene with lesbian overtones), leaving that to the actual coeds. Truth be told, Efron’s torso gets more screen time than the flesh of all the women in this film … combined.
I was also quite impressed with Brandon Trost‘s cinematography, specifically during the party scenes inside the frat house. With the beat of a great soundtrack behind him, his creatively-lit visuals and dazzling use of Day-Glo and black light create popping colors that evoke memories of Spring Breakers.
There are scenes in the Neighbors trailer that are not in the film. This is not uncommon with movies. Surely when the film is released on Blu-ray, those scenes (and others) will be offered as collective extras or perhaps inserted into the film as part of a Director’s Cut or an Unrated Version. I’ll be curious to see that if the scenes that were cut from the theatrical release had remained in the film, and if other scenes had been removed instead, if the film would have been a better coming-of-middle-age story or a better raunchy comedy. In its current state, it straddles that fence, and does so to its own detriment.