One of the variables that you can’t really control when you buy a house is the neighbors. You can do as many inspections as you like on your potential new home, but you don’t really get a good read of the neighborhood until you spend a lot of time in it. The couple next door that seemed so friendly may have loud arguments after having too much to drink. The guy across the way may play his music to loud. The family that was so welcoming can be extremely nosy and far too invested in your business. Even when you have good neighbors, there is always the potential that they will sell their home and some unknown quantity can throw off the delicate balance of the neighborhood. Having crappy neighbors can make life pretty miserable.
This is the central conceit behind the new comedy Neighbors. Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) have a young baby and have just spent all their savings on a new home in a quiet residential neighborhood. Much to their dismay, the house next to them is purchased by a fraternity from the local college, bringing loud music and debauchery to their doorstep led by fraternity president Teddy (Zac Efron). While initially wanting to be the cool couple, one too many sleepless nights leads them into war with the fraternity, who have no intensions of adjusting their party schedule for the people next door. Both sides try to force the other out and a small neighborhood dispute morphs into a take no prisoners epic battle for survival.
While there are definitely some funny moments in Neighbors, it never quite lived up to the comedic potential that I thought that the story and cast had. It’s a generally amusing film, but I really didn’t laugh as much as I had hoped I would; I chuckled here and there, but there just weren’t the barrage of jokes that I anticipated. There were plenty of things that I liked about Neighbors, but ultimately it comes down to whether the film was funny or not. On that count, I’d have to say that you could probably wait for this film to come out on DVD, though seeing a shirtless Efron on the big screen may be worth the price of admission for some.
One of the things that I liked about Neighbors is that it subtly shows a maturity in these types of films. Now that is not to say that there wasn’t plenty of sophomore humor in the film – there are plenty of dick jokes if that is your jam –but the characters in the movie show a slight evolution toward adulthood. The film’s sympathies definitely lie with Mac and Kelly – this is not a film about poor kids not being able to party. The “adults” are not the villains here and there is never any doubt that living next to a fraternity and all that generally comes with it would not be a homeowner’s dream. In a lot of ways, Neighbors is quietly dealing with the changing priorities people have as they get older. Mac and Kelly are really struggling with the idea that they are no longer hip. That’s a different perspective from the norm of this genre of movies that tend to focus on arrested development and the man-children that don’t want to accept real responsibility.
There is also a subtle shift in the gender dynamic of these type of films; usually the wife/girl friend is the shrew who tries to stop the man from having any fun. The women are typically objects to lust after or people to flee because of their nagging, killjoy ways. Neighbors is a buddy comedy, but the buddies are Mac and Kelly. They are clearly a team in this film – they like spending time together and both can be immature or make poor decisions. They hatch their plans together; Kelly isn’t running in to clean up the mess that Mac made without her knowing – she’s making the mess right along with him. It’s a minor difference, but it’s an important one and reflects a more nuanced look at relationships. Rogen and Byrne are both fun to watch and they play off each other very well. Byrne has quietly been building up a nice little comedic resume, but mostly in supporting roles, so it is nice to see her get a chance to shine. She more than keeps up with
Efron was also enjoyable in his role as the resident bad boy. I haven’t seen a lot of his movies – his project and my personal preferences rarely seem to line up – but playing a smarmy jerk seemed like a bit of departure for him. He should play jerks more often, since he really seemed to have fun with it. He provides a nice foil to Rogen. If you only know Efron from his High School Musical days, Neighbors will do a lot to make you think of him in a different way. Dave Franco – brother to James – also turns up as the more level-headed vice-president of the fraternity and does his usual solid job. Hannibal Buress, Lisa Kudrow, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Carla Gallo and Ike Barinholtz all turn up in small parts as well, but aren’t given a ton to do.
Full disclosure – I lived across the street from a fraternity house for two years. Granted, at the time I was living in my sorority house, but both of our houses were smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood. I don’t really recall them making any sort of a ruckus – at least not the kind that was distracting to neighbors. Plenty of shenanigans happened, but away from the prying eyes and ears of outsiders. Probably the biggest disruption occasionally came from loud drunk college kids leaving or arriving at parties, but when you live in a town that has 52 bars and two college campuses, that was probably going to be an issue regardless of Greeks living in your neighborhood or not. We also knew that we had to be nice to our neighbors since we required a special use permit to have a fraternity or sorority house operational in neighborhoods that were renewable yearly. Cause too much of a problem and the neighbors could complain and you wouldn’t have a house the next year. I’m not saying that things were 100% perfect – even my sorority got a noise ordinance once and we were pretty by the books – but it wasn’t a constant barrage of loud music and disruptive behavior for the neighbors to endure. Whether we were just really well-behaved Greeks overall or our neighbors just didn’t care since they had lived next to Greek houses for a long time, I really have no memories of there being any problems with the non-collegiate residents of Elm Street. If anything, the fraternity was an endless source of amusement; watching them move all their living room furniture outside so they could play video games on the front lawn or try to figure out how to best pack their jeeps for a camping trip provided us with plenty of entertainment. I’m not saying that I would necessarily revel in living next to a fraternity house now, but it wasn’t nearly as insane as depicted in Neighbors.
Sadly, the whole just winds up being less than the sum of its parts with Neighbors. Despite the very funny cast and a creative premise, the laughs are just too sporadic in the film for it to be considered a must-see. The film tries to have it all – be a raunchy comedy while at the same time have some sweetness and meditate on maturity and changing priorities – but doesn’t successfully blend both aspects successfully. Some slow pacing and letting some jokes run a beat too long result in a film that just isn’t as funny as it should be. Neighbors has its moments – it is especially fun to watch Rose Byrne hatch a plan of destruction – but they are too few and far between for it to become a modern classic. Solid effort all around, but the final product just doesn’t quite live up to the hype.
Neighbors opened nationwide on May 9th.