My worldview as I approach my thirties can probably be summed up like this: I realize I don’t know everything about everyone, and I’m a bit more willing to dismiss the annoying behavior of people in a different stage of life than me. Whether a crying baby or a drunk reveler in public crashing into me, I total up the minuscule degree to which they’re actually affecting my life, slip on my noise-canceling headphones, and think to myself, “Well, that’s just what they do.” It won’t last, I’m sure. But it’s certainly the correct mindset to enter Nicholas Stoller‘s latest comedy, Neighbors, driven as always by a cadre of well-defined, occasionally sympathetic, and constantly hilarious characters. This is a film that is driven by the right kind of central conflict – one between two sympathetic sides with mostly legitimate grievances, who take turns pushing things way too far. This is full-bore comedic warfare between a frathouse, led by metaphorical brothers Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco), and their neighbors, new parents Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne).
And as always, Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement) – along with comedic editorial alumnus Zene Baker (This Is the End) – has a brilliant sense of pacing, spending just enough time with each group initially to establish them all as sympathetic characters before the mayhem begins. This is Animal House by way of “Game of Thrones”, and I don’t make the latter reference lightly. The film’s script is sprinkled with subtle nods to the George R.R. Martin series, including plying the smallfolk of the neighborhood with the labor of an army of pledge-slaves. The frat brothers also spend several minutes expounding on the dubiously-sourced history of their group (which includes the invention of beer pong and the toga party), then recite an oath fit for a raunchier version of the Night’s Watch. They’re even desperate for their exploits to earn them a place on the Wall. And President Teddy is the consummate ethical fratboy. He refuses to abuse his power and simply place his group’s picture onto the wall until they’ve done something legendary to earn it.
The dynamic between the Radners is equally complex – Kelly is a tailor-made excuse for Rose Byrne to use her native Aussie accent, as well as a brilliant undermining of the typical dynamic between irresponsible husband and henpecking wife. Rogen’s character has the audacity to call out Kevin James films as the chief offenders in this regard, but let’s be honest – this is just a slightly less dysfunctional sequel to Rogen’s own Knocked Up (notwithstanding the sequel it actually spawned). In a way, this feels like a 90-minute apology for every film in which the wet-blanket wife is relegated to sensible interference with the hero’s insane antics – and as an aside, it’s also an apology for every movie in which the sole black member of the fraternity is relegated to dealing nothing but inane catchphrases. It’s not as if Garf (Jerrod Carmichael) is a main character within the frat (any more so than Scoonie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) or Assjuice (Craig Roberts)), but he at least has a personality, a few lines of dialogue, and some desires of his own. In terms of racial dynamics within a college comedy, it’s a modicum of progress.
But back to the Radners for a moment – Rogen is funny as ever, but he’s not straining himself here. If you like the way he drops F-bombs, consumes narcotics, and takes off his clothes, there’s plenty to enjoy. But Byrne delivers the latest in an impressive run of comedic performances, following Bridesmaids and Get Him To the Greek, proving more than a match for Rogen as they gradually escalate the situation. Mac’s plans start off gross and destructive – smack a water pipe with an axe, and flood the basement. Kelly’s are manipulative and borderline sociopathic – infilitrate the group and subtly sabotage the interpersonal dynamics. And occasionally, they swap strategies. It’s some pretty demented stuff – and it’s executed brilliantly. Speaking of demented, Ike Barinholtz was as strong and disturbing as ever. Best known for his breakout role on The Mindy Project, Barinholtz seems to specialize in characters with a skewed sense of reality, and he’s a ton of fun here. Carla Gallo isn’t bad either, and Lisa Kudrow gives a crack-up performance as the college’s deadpan dean.
Efron’s character is charming, but not quite as well-defined as the rest. This is essentially a more likable version of Van Wilder – a party monster who isn’t quite ready to graduate and face the real world. The film introduces this conflict with Teddy, Pete, and other members of the frat, but doesn’t do much with it, and semi-optimistically brushes the issue off at the film’s end. Despite acknowledging the imminent responsibilities that these college grads will soon have to deal with, the film doesn’t seem interested in addressing them in any real way. And I suppose that’s fine. The film is certainly funny enough to justify itself otherwise. Some of the raunchier gags (like “Standing here with our dicks in our hands”) worked nicely; others (like a dubious parenting gag involving some fake-looking breasts) did not. By and large, this film is a fun, refreshing take on the college gross-out comedy – easily the strongest since Old School.
FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10