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Entries in Neighbors [2014] (1)

Friday
May092014

Neighbors (2014)

Pledges of Allegiance

Thanks to Bridesmaids' runaway success three years ago, summer no longer belongs exclusively to comic-book nerds and disaster-porn junkies. The mainstream, hard-R comedy is back in a big way, and while my reaction to such movies has been spotty, I really appreciate the strategic geniuses in Hollywood sandwiching some adult fare between all the 3D spectacle of world-saving CGI super-heroics.

Which brings us to Nicholas Stoller's Neighbors, a blockbuster frat comedy that both revels in the genre's traditions and transcends them. The premise is super-simple: new parents Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, respectively) are delighted when a fraternity buys the empty house next door. They live vicariously through the parade of bongs, beers and bodacious bodies, all of which they seem to have given up not long before having baby Stella (Elise and Zoey Vargas). The new residents include house president Teddy (Zac Efron) and vice president Pete (Dave Franco), who are courteous, inviting, and all-around fun--until Mac calls the cops one evening with a noise complaint.

Instead of the tired "slobs versus snobs" plot, Neighbors gives us "former slobs versus maturing slobs", and cuts right to the heart of what it means to become an adult. I don't know anything about writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn that one or both of them are young parents. For every gross-out gag involving penis molds or penises that engorge on command (lotta dick jokes in this movie), there are insightful zingers about navigating life with a baby (the filmmakers avoid a really sticky situation early on involving a friend inviting Mac and Kelly out to a rave with Stella in tow--simply by illustrating the logistics of such an outing). Of course, the creators take some license here and there by straining the boundaries of believability, but that is, I guess, to be expected in a feature-length sitcom.

On the other side of the fence, Teddy and Pete are at war--with the Radners and themselves. Teddy is obsessed with throwing a legendary party so he can get his frat's picture up on the house's wall of infamy. Pete is torn between partying his butt off and landing a high-paying job for after graduation. And, of course, there's a girl. Halston Sage plays Brooke, Teddy's girlfriend, who may also have the hots for his best friend. She winds up being both a sub-plot and a metaphor, but it's refreshing to see a bubbly, curvaceous co-ed in one of these movies who isn't also cold-hearted and vacuous.

I won't dive any deeper into the synopsis; the fun of movies like this is going in cold and letting the ridiculous abundance of genuinely surprising jokes assault your funny bone. Fans of Old School, Animal House, and Project X will, no doubt, recognize a lot of the college/house party tropes, but Stoller and cinematographer Brandon Trost make Neighbors as much a unique visual experience as a comedic one. The movie bounces from location to location, from Mac's cubicle-planet of a day job to a black-light rave in the frat house, and into Teddy's arrested-development compound of a private loft, which gets destroyed during his hilarious, climactic brawl with Mac.

The script and filmmaking are good, but the performances are better. Last year's vanity project, This is The End, was an excuse for Rogen and his Apatow-frat brethren to make fun of themselves; it felt like six hours of in-joke improv, with very few reminders of why the audience should care about the actors or their "characters". Here, everyone brings their "A" game, meaning people like Byrne and Efron (from whom the casual viewer might not expect much) get to strut their considerable comedic talents with some established modern heavyweights.

That's right, I'm endorsing Zac Efron as a solid comedic actor. In this, and in the woefully under appreciated That Awkward Moment from earlier this year, he establishes wonderful timing and a presence that outshine even his preposterously sculpted body. And Byrne, who's known largely for being a stuffed shirt in Bridesmaids and a scared wife in the Insidious movies, cuts loose with a relaxed, normal-woman performance that would be a star-maker--were she not already a star.

It's telling, I think, that I saw this in a packed house that included both general audience members and movie critics--and that everyone frequently lost their minds with laughter. There was even a spontaneous erruption of applause during a scene that didn't telegraph the filmmakers' desire for such a reaction. What cements this a must-see for me, though, is the fact that I wanted to watch it again as soon as the credits rolled. At a brisk, laugh-packed ninety minutes, Neighbors has all the makings of a new-century comedy classic.