Riot on the Block


Neighbors - 2014
Written by Andrew J Cohen & Brendan O'Brien
Directed by Nicholas Stoller

Neighbors enters the game with a number of strikes against it from the first pitch.  Strike One; it's a rivalry movie.  Rivalry movies, in general, fall into roughly the same class as slasher horror when it comes to thinness of plot and predictability.  Strike Two; it's a fraternity movie and a young couple confronting the demands of maturity movie.  Most fraternity movies are like Greek Row talent night sketches rehashing Animal House (and drama majors tend not to go Greek).  The last one to offer anything new to the concept was Old School, and that was eleven years ago.  The new parent film has seldom had anything thoughtful to add to the subject beyond the "Lighter Side of Erma Bombeck" style of "Gosh, we didn't think we'd be this tired!" sort of observations -- probably because writers who are new parents are too tired to think of much else, and writers who aren't new parents never hear anything else from their friends who are.  Strike Three; it's a Seth Rogen vehicle -- a vehicle upon which the polish has begun to fade.  You know the pattern; Seth character feels dumb, gets stoned, makes awkwardly inappropriate joke, stoner-laughs at his own joke, repeat.  This Is The End's ouroborous of self-referential self-reference pretty much took this pattern to its ultimate form.

With this slate of causes for skepticism, it seemed unsurprising when the movie came out and the reviews skewed toward mixed and mediocre.  So when I had the chance to see it, my approach was "Well, maybe it will be a little lighthearted silliness to pass the rest of a thoughtless evening."  It's safe to say that I was unprepared for the many laugh-out-loud moments that I found therein.  Be ye not misled, the plot offers few surprises, but it's enough of a structure upon which to hang some very funny jokes, gags and comedic situations (which is still a more solid framework than This Is The End had).  The biggest surprise, however, comes from the moments of humanity explored on both sides of the fence.

The story, in short, involves Mac & Kelly (Seth Rogen & Rose Byrne), a youngish couple who have recently invested everything they have into a new home for themselves and their freakin' adorable baby daughter.  Life is good, they're home, living what remains of the American Dream... and it kind of freaks them out a little.

Then the fraternity moves in next door.

Fraternity president Teddy (Zac Efron) is committed to earning a place on the house's storied wall of legendary party-hounds, aided and abetted by Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jerrod Carmichael and the rest of the brethren. 

With the intention of heading off disaster (but secretly afraid of watching their own youth die), Mac & Kelly head next door to welcome their new neighbors and ingratiate themselves to the frat boys in order to validate their future requests for peace and quiet, should the need arise.  This largely involves Mac saying "dope" way too much.  The brothers also recognize the need for good relations, since pissed-off neighbors have the potential to bring police and university trouble down on their heads.  They invite Mr. & Mrs. Radner to party with them that night, which the Radners, in the depths of their "We've still got it" passage into middle adulthood are only too glad to accept.  After a night of partying like it's still 1999, it appears that peace is to reign o'er the land.

But what fun is that?

By the next evening, the frat house is a-rockin' and the Radners are afraid to go a-knockin'.  Instead, they call the police, and a schism is born.  From that point on, it's simply a process of ratcheting up the rivalry between the two houses, with the Radners trying to get the Deltas thrown out, and the Deltas taking revenge for the Radners' betrayal.

Where most rivalry movies fall into the trap of increasing the level of cruelty, I get the feeling that the writers here placed the greatest emphasis on designing funny pranks and plots, more than merely mean-spirited ones.  And that has made all the difference.  Because the fraternity has nothing to gain, their stunts are able to be free from purpose other than ridiculousness.  The Radners and their friends have to be more conniving, and grapple with the tempting lure of youthful irresponsibility.  Some of the movie's best moments come not merely from the conflict between not just between young and not-as-young, but the generational differences between millennials and, well, everyone else.  This is best encapsulated in a super-stoned debate between Mac and Teddy about which actor defines Batman for them.

Along the way, characters from both houses grapple with the march of time.  Mac & Kelly feel the weight of responsibility and the dark side of parenting.  Teddy & Pete deal with the uncertainty of graduation and the unknown lands beyond in very different ways, which threatens their bro-lationship in a way that even their ho-lationships could not.  Now, I'm not saying it's a thought-provoking exploration of maturity like [French movie of your choice], but it more than fulfills the bare minimum of effort expended on weaving a theme into a dick-and-fart-joke movie.

Seth Rogen has really begun to grate on me, if I'm not in just the right frame of mind.  One thing I hate about myself is that I sometimes laugh like him, because I think he sounds like a drug-addled nitwit when he "Huh huh huhs" and I'm much harder on myself.  But in Neighbors... I didn't mind him.  His character wasn't quite the fuck-up we're used to him playing.  Sure, he still gets high, but he also gets a job done (and gets high).  You know, I'm not sure we ever find out what his job is.  We're just shown that he has some generic office job the requires paperwork on projects.  The important thing is, he's trying, and he's not a complete dipshit about it.

Rose Byrne is the real champ of Neighbors.  Evidently it was she herself who told director Nicholas Stoller that, rather than lazily being the shrill wife who exists to destroy the boys' fun, Kelly should be right in the middle of things, plotting and struggling to protect her child's sleep and her own passing sense of youth.  This difference benefits the film in every possible way.  She also carries the movie's crudest and most uncomfortably hilarious scenes with the commitment and energy to really sell what could have been a disturbing show-killer.  It's really time to start respecting Rose Byrne.  The variety of genres and roles that she's taken on show both versatility and bravery as a performer.  She's done comedy, horror, action and drama, often accepting thankless roles in support of others.  Well, I thank you, Rose.  You make the movies I like even better.

Ike Barinholtz and Carla Gallo play Mac & Kelly's divorced best friends.  Barinholtz picks up some of the dumb-guy slack that Rogen has laid down, and contributes some particularly satisfying laughs when the four of them try their hands at fake celebrity phone calls.  Gallo gets the short shrift in yet another dingbatty "slut" role.

Several opportunities are taken to show off Zac Efron's chiseled physique, so there's a little sum-sumthin' for the girls and boys who like boys.  There's actually quite a bit more beefcake than cheesecake on display, thus bucking the traditional frat movie standard.  He pulls off all the arrogance and insanity required, and manages to squeeze in some human moments with both Franco and Rogen.

Speaking of Dave Franco, he's sort of a more restrained version of his older brother James.  He doesn't necessarily reach as far, but then he's less likely to lose his grasp.  Christopher Mintz-Plasse feels a little wasted here, but the elevation of relative newcomer Jerrod Carmichael more than makes up for it.  His character, Garf gets a couple of funny scenes, where Mintz-Plasse really only gets one laugh-out-loud line, and it's a virtual throwaway.

Lisa Kudrow shows up to steal a couple scenes in the middle as the dean of students.  In just a few lines, she lays down some deeply biting satire at why things are the way they are in the world.  It's a token plot-point and it could have been handled any number of ways, but the way it's handled sneaks a little bite into the mix.  Speaking of token plot-points, the initial police handling of the noise complaint is designed to remove them from the shenanigans to follow.  The contrivance comes off as cheap, and the officer (Hannibal Burress) who shows up at the beginning and the end was confusingly oddball until we figure out that he just enjoys messing with people's heads in general.

If I had a single biggest complaint about Neighbors (and I do), it would be the role of women.  Byrne and Kudrow kill it, but Gallo, Teddy's girlfriend Brooke (Halston Sage) and pretty much all of the other women exist to be sluts and/or window dressing.  They dance and girlishly "Aww!" at anything baby-related.  Once Brooke has served her purpose as a plot device in a "bros before hos" machination, she disappears from the story, pretty much enforcing the "bros before hos" foolishness that it attempted to mock.  It's not ordinarily my policy to ding a movie for what it's not, but the way that Brooke simply disappeared once the movie was done using her just seemed a bit on the nose not to warrant a mention.

That being said, Neighbors was one of the funniest movies I've seen in quite some time.  Comedy has had a rough time lately in our self-serious cinematic environment.  So much of cinema has come to be dictated by the young male demographic, but since the coming of the internet, that demo has fed into a downward spiral of joyless self-importance and pointless bitching.  Action movies fall all over themselves to give the boys what they want.  Drama has become a virtual niche outside of award season.  Horror and comedy are so deeply subjective that every self-entitled rage-nerd brands that which they even mildly dislike with zero scores to drag the average down to their levels.  So it's hard to find a comedy with a resounding shared endorsement, because it's all averaged against the depths of the troll dungeons.

Neighbors isn't a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, but it's not supposed to be.  If you're worried about your penis being good enough, Neighbors isn't going to help you feel like a man.  Neighbors does one thing, and it does it well.  Neighbors is freakin' FUNNY. 

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