In lesser hands, Neighbors could have been an easily forgettable mess of a film, with talented comedic performers simply going through the motions of a ‘versus’-type comedy. The thing that separates a film like this from whatever junk a company like Happy Madison Productions tends to put out in theaters these days is the attempt to not only introduce some easy themes to go with the bevy of jokes, but really deliver on them just as clearly as the gags. Make no mistake, Neighbors is a rowdy comedy that will live or die on whether or not observational humor + profanity (and shenanigans) can make you laugh, but it is hardly dumb humor. It has plenty of silliness for the actors to engage in, but grappling onto the idea of adulthood matters just as much.
Teddy: We’re having a hard time hanging onto our balls. They’re so big.
The film’s premise is so simple, it is easy to see why it has potential to be such a big hit. A couple with a newborn baby is forced to deal with a fraternity that establishes itself as the new next-door neighbors. One side has the couple, Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne), who are already trying to contend with being parents, but are now forced to deal with a raucous group. The other side has the frat, led by Teddy (Zac Efron) and his second-in-command, Pete (Dave Franco), who have a goal to throw a party big enough to make their tenure at the fraternity legendary. These sides will be battling it out in an effort to come out on top, with risks that mostly amount to whether or not the parents can get any rest.
Neighbors benefits not only from solid writing that explores this premise beyond just its base idea, but also from its inspired casting. It is easy to say that Seth Rogen plays similar characters in his film, but he’s not the kind of actor that goes for transformative material. He is a comedic performer that has become very good at playing this type of low-key character, which has a touch of drama to go with the humor. Along with him though, Rose Byrne continues to prove that she has more talents than simply using an American accent in dramatic roles. Here she holds onto her Australian accent and plays just as large a role as her onscreen husband, with plenty to add from a comedy standpoint.
On the frat side of things, Zac Efron is practically in the role he was born to play, as he balances this frat boy persona with material that allows him to deal with what it means to be a dumb college senior that is aware he is a dumb college senior and has no prospects to attach himself to, once his role as frat leader ends. Dave Franco continues his rise as a reliable supporting comedic performer, who gets some of the film’s best laughs from some throwaway lines of dialogue. There are other recognizable comedic performers scattered throughout the film as well, but suffice it to say they are all game to jump in on the fun, without overwhelming the film.
Director Nicholas Stoller and writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien manage to find a way to creatively make the concept of this film work in both broad and small senses, as the film is creatively filmed to a point that has me annoyed at the amount of money made by the directors of fairly lazy comedies that are flat an uninteresting watch. Yes, there are big gags that fit for putting a trailer together, but the way this film conveys a sense of chaos going on in its frat party scenes versus the chaos of being a parent trying to manage a child, while planning to go out for a night is quite fittingly handled as well. Even in the actual writing of the film there are scenes that involve basic, but entertaining conversation that keeps the stakes of the film set in a stylized reality that still feels natural in terms of character interaction, amidst whatever craziness may be going on in the background.
There is a sense of “letting the actors play” that I can easily see as becoming grating for some, as certain scenes go on for the sake of having the actors say as many funny things as they can and the eventual edit of the film seeing no clear winner amongst the punchlines, so an audience gets to see them all as a result. With that said, as one who came to see a comedy and found all the actors to be nailing a good majority of these comedic beats, I would hardly see it as a complaint, given the brisk nature of a film that is frequently very funny and has little down time.
Keeping the attempts to maintain the humor in mind, Neighbors is smart about how to handle the idea of growing up, as the film never rests simply on being about rivalry. While trying to outdo each other is the basic thrust of the middle of this film, we are watching characters that are both exiting college and entering a new stage of adulthood. Neighbors has this concept as its backbone, which is what makes me so happy, when it comes to seeing how it all plays out. You leave the film with this, ‘no harm, no foul’ type conclusion that wants to suggest that these people just wanted to have a final time of fun within the bounds of who they may grow out of being. Not that these people will not have fun anymore, but heading to the next step means stopping a certain kind of party at some point.
I really liked Neighbors. It has a fun spirit that is exemplified by its cast, its qualities as a small scale comedy, and its screenplay that keeps the wackiness within the realms of a film that has some deeper ideas. I also laughed a lot, which is what I wanted to do. The film is very funny, without feeling overlong or overdone and I will be happy to embrace its combination of wit and silliness again, at some point, before these people graduate to something even grander.
Kelly: I’m a mama bear!
Mac: Claws are out!