A comedy of us vs. them
Although largely-anticipated as the Animal House for Gen Y, Neighbors (or Bad Neighbours across the pond) keeps the focus off of the titular neighbors in favor of its more-established star, Seth Rogen (The Green Hornet, The Guilt Trip). That isn’t to say the students are one note characters who show up solely to antagonize our new parent protagonists, but they are the antagonists for all intents and purposes who receive less screen time than parents Rogen and Rose Byrne (X-Men: First Class, Get Him to the Greek). The cast keep the pace quick without a weak performance; however there are certainly poorly-developed, stereotypical college boy characters per the college-oriented film requisite. Although never seeming to fully glorify or indict the behavior of excessive (even obsessive) partying, director Nicholas Stoller (Get Him to the Greek, The Five-Year Engagement) draws influence from last year’s Spring Breakers by examining the partiers and not the partying in a more mainstream vision. Stoller even goes so far as to reference his own work and possibly tie Neighbors into the same universe as Get Him to the Greek when an original song from the 2010 comedy plays during a party sequence in his newest film.
Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien’s script is a mockery of not only the obvious “frat bro” stereotype, but surprisingly that of married, stressed parents clinging to what delusions of youth and cool they have left who can’t seem to age gracefully or appropriately. The rival factions eventually clash after starting out as friends. This creates a conflict of each side examining and comparing itself to the other for the film’s emotional points adding further tension to the heist scenes that always go down in the least Danny Ocean-way possible. Both sides take their retaliatory stunts too far, but when a baby is on the line can students afford to plant airbags all over a house or can a parent afford to drink, smoke, snort, and eat shrooms with a host of people under 21 or possibly 18? Although the students are the film’s antagonists, the parents’ pathetic need to fit in and feel young at the potential risk of their daughter, Stella, is the greater tragedy. It’s Rogen and Byrne who grow more as characters than the featured Delta Psi characters because they have so much more at stake.
The fraternity president played by Zac Efron (17 Again, Hairspray) and vice president, Pete, played by Dave Franco (21 Jump Street, Now You See Me) tend to take the expected, traditional arc as their relationship barely gets fleshed out beyond their “bros before hos” mantra save for a few broad family issues and vague homosexual subtext from Franco’s character (even though Pete displays how he is fully into women) who repeatedly shouts "I love you" at Efron in one scene without appearing to get his total point across. Efron gets weird as Teddy and it definitely works. Art imitates fictional life when Delta’s Robert DeNiro party reminds the viewers that Teddy’s shirtless descent into obsession with antagonizing a family and earning a photo on his fraternity’s wall is reminiscent of Robert DeNiro’s shirtless stalker in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 Cape Fear remake. Efron walks a fine line of crazed and brilliant, but the constant drug references can’t display a good image for a celebrity recently-removed from rehab. His violent fight scene with Rogen gets too intense for a sequence taking the big fight scene from Pineapple Express too far by playing up the rougher, more realistic punching and kicking sound effects. Just because a comedy is rated R, doesn’t mean every facet has to hit that level.
Rose Byrne gives the best performance of the film as the diabolical, Australian mother and wife of Rogen. She especially shines in a sequence involving her seductive powers to drive a wedge between Efron and Franco. A fearless performance, Byrne hits all levels of the young mother spectrum: making out with a college girl, making out with a college boy, briefly leaving her husband, reuniting with her husband, constantly interrupted while getting intimate, dancing around a fraternity with a baby monitor, figuring out a maze of relationships in mere seconds, and the list continues. Art imitates fictional life again as watching Steve Carell play Michael Scott and talk about “bros before hos” on “The Office” causes her character, Kelly, to hatch her awful, flawless plan.
Stand-up comic Hannibal Buress’ Officer Watkins (The Kings of Summer, “30 Rock”) stands out in a film full of extended-and brief cameos. Buress’ frank-talking police officer keeps the audiences rolling in their seats with perfect timing and brevity. The Lonely Island and “Workaholics” crews pop in with Jake Johnson (Safety Not Guaranteed, “New Girl”) for a montage, and Lisa Kudrow has a few less-than-memorable scenes as the university dean. Jason Mantzoukas (The Dictator, “Parks and Recreation”) steals a few quick jokes for his scene as the pediatrician.
Nick Stoller’s comedic look at students risking their future and parents risking far more is a better note on his resumé than 2012’s The Five-Year Engagement. Learning from pacing issues this time around, the director brings everything back to the heart of the film—baby Stella—without bombarding the audience with adorable takes that would easily make the film more likeable. Efron’s villainous performance as an obsessive student shows his range within a comedy as Byrne takes the cake playing all over the place as a manic mother. A cavalcade of cameos creates a fun familiarity for a film not afraid to mock the lifestyles of its characters. Neighbors is a film built around referencing pop culture as “The Office,” Robert De Niro, and, ever-so-slyly, Get Him to the Greek are displayed, mentioned, or hinted. Stoller reportedly sought inspiration from Argentine director Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void to get the neon aesthetic he envisioned. A film that knows its audience tends to win at the box office. Could The Amazing Spider-Man 2 take a bigger financial dent than expected in theaters this weekend?