Film Review: Neighbors

Believe it or not, underneath this raucous, riotous squares-vs.-slobs comedy lies a thoughtful character study.

There comes a time in the life of every overgrown adolescent when he (or she, though in mainstream Hollywood comedies it's typically a he) is finally required to…well, grow up already. That's probably one of the reasons why, seven years after Knocked Up made him the Millennial poster boy for arrested development, Seth Rogen has finally embraced full-fledged family-man status in his latest star vehicle, Neighbors, which reunites him with writer-director Nicholas Stoller for the first time since the late, great Fox series, “Undeclared.” (That show, of course, was overseen by their dual mentor, Judd Apatow, who has had a hand in many of their respective big-screen efforts since, though his name is absent from the credits here.) Not only does Rogen's thirtysomething hero Mac Radner come equipped with a wife, Kelly (Rose Byrne), a steady office job and a starter home, he's also playing daddy to an adorable infant daughter.

Of course, since Mac has the face, form and voice of Seth Rogen, there's still a pronounced streak of adolescent goofiness—not to mention a significant degree of adolescent insecurity—running underneath the trappings of adulthood that surround him. And those feelings do occasionally cloud his mind, particularly when he gazes across his front lawn at the army of frat boys that have descended upon the house directly next door and experiences that pang for his vanished past as a responsibility-free 20-year-old. At the same time, though, the blindness so many of those kids display towards their futures, as well as their exhausting parade of hedonism, spurs him to defend his own "uncool" life choices by initiating an ever-escalating battle of wills and pranks with the guys next door. And that's what really makes this role and this film something of a departure for Rogen: For once, he's not fighting to stay young—he's fighting to stay an adult.

That subtle but pointed tweak to Rogen's established screen persona is one of the many welcome surprises in Neighbors, which mixes the surface pleasures seen in the best studio-made comedies—smart casting choices, a healthy balance of smart and sophomoric gags, and a tidy runtime that brings down the curtain before the movie wears out its welcome—with interesting creative choices that give the film more complexity than you might expect going in. A more conventional version of this premise, for instance, would likely have followed the Revenge of the Nerds playbook and made the frat guys descendents of the Alpha Beta jocks, while Rogen remained a one-man Tri-Lambs. Certainly, with his absurdly buff body and smarmy-charmy attitude, frat president Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) seems made in the image of Ted McGinley's Stan Gable.

But in a welcome twist, it turns out that Teddy's decision to pick a fight with Mac isn't that he's just a giant dick; instead, it's his way of coping with the fact that he's not at all ready to leave the warm cocoon of college, having spent the past four years avoiding answering the question "What do I want to be when I grow up?" (For the record, the other frat guys are likeable as well, most notably Teddy's right-hand man Pete, played by Dave Franco, whose amusing character arc involves him becoming the one guy in the house who recognizes the—gasp!—educational value of college.)

Working from a script by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, Stoller and his stars turn Neighbors into a character portrait about two guys who are, in a very real sense, mirror images of each other. Teddy is the kid that Mac once was and is half-eager and half-afraid to become again, while Mac represents the man that Teddy has no desire to grow into. Small wonder they butt heads in such spectacular fashion: They're each a threat to the other's very existence.

Although the battle between Rogen and Efron—both of whom bring their A-game, by the way—takes center stage, the secret star of Neighbors is Rose Bryne's Kelly, who thankfully emerges as someone far more interesting (not to mention funny) than the women who are generally asked to play the harried, haranguing significant others in boy-centric comedies. If Mac is feeling the weight of adulthood's shackles, they're twice as heavy on Kelly's shoulders, as she gave up her career to stay home with their daughter. Without overplaying it, Byrne channels the latent anger and frustration that comes with being a new parent into Kelly's decision to take an active role in her husband's really futile and stupid war. Early on, Stoller even awards her a doppelganger in the form of Teddy's sorority galpal Brooke (Halston Sage), who has the same wild, impulsive side that Kelly was once able to embrace and now has to keep at arm's length. Unfortunately, the Kelly/Brooke connection is allowed to lapse as the movie progresses, which robs Byrne of some interesting material, but thankfully doesn’t dampen her comic verve.

In previous directorial efforts like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five Year Engagement (where the two-hour runtime felt closer to five years), Stoller has more closely aped Apatow's tendency towards a looser, shaggier form of comedy. But he displays a new fire and focus in Neighbors, which clocks in at a swift 96 minutes without an ounce of extraneous fat…give or take a few seconds that could have been trimmed from his repeated use of slow-motion tableau shots staged in the style of hip-hop videos. In a way, Neighbors represents Stoller's stab at a Marx Brothers feature, specifically the college-set Horse Feathers. Both movies are tightly constructed exercises in escalating absurdity that pit sharply etched comic personalities against each other in a fight for supremacy. And considering that the Marxes followed up Horse Feathers with Duck Soup, here's hoping that Stoller holds on to some of the lessons he learned on Neighbors and makes a similarly evolutionary leap with his next film.

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