War of the Worlds: A Review of ‘Neighbors’

Plastered all over the promotion for Nicholas Stoller’s latest film Neighbors is the endorsement: “From the guys who brought you This is the End.” While there are obvious economic and creative reasons for this marketing tactic, it could be misleading. This is the End, while one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a long time, was all about mayhem on a literally apocalyptic scale. Neighbors, while too being one of the funnier films in recent years, deals with a very different kind of mayhem.

The conflicts are small-scale and deeply personal, and the movie is an exercise in finding impossibly hysterical ways to keep upping the ante.

Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) have finally entered adulthood. Or have they? They have a newborn baby girl, have moved into their first house, and are holding down respectable jobs. But they are in an awkward time in their lives—their youthful party days are recent enough to be fresh in their minds, but their parental, adult responsibilities are, by necessity, their present.

To remedy the situation, Mac and Kelly try to have it all. They try to take the baby along when they go on a night of debauchery, but they fall asleep at the door. They try to have spontaneous sex in the kitchen, but they can’t get the baby to stop watching them. And when the Delta Psi Kappa fraternity moves in next door, Mac and Kelly try to be the “cool” neighbors. That, needless to say, does not last long.

The president of the frat, Teddy (Zac Efron), is determined to reach Delta Psi immortality. And unfortunately for Mac and Kelly and their daughter Stella, that means partying. A lot. Mac and Kelly try different tactics: calmly asking the brothers to keep the music down, not-so-calmly asking to keep the music down, and even going to one of their parties to bond with them, in the hopes that, if they present themselves as “cool,” the frat will for some reason keep their music down. It doesn’t work.

The married couple resorts to leaving an “anonymous” phone call to the police, one which quickly proves un-anonymous, and the floodgates for the rest of the movie are opened. True to the movie’s tag line, “Family vs. Frat,” the passive-aggressive prankfest between the family and the frat quickly (maniacally quickly) escalates into all-out war. Mac and Kelly want the frat out. Teddy wants to be honored in the Delta Psi shrine.

I’d being lying if I said there was any more plot than that. Really, I’d just need maybe one more sentence describing the ending and that’d be the whole movie. The “Family vs. Frat” premise is the entire story from that point on—the back and forth of one-upped chaos between Mac and Kelly and the Delta Psi brothers. There’s a refreshing simplicity in this approach, especially in comparison to Stoller’s other films (Forgetting Sarah MarshallGet Him to the Greek, and The Five-Year Engagement are varying degrees of quality, but all would have benefitted from being shorter). Neighbors runs a brisk, tight 96 minutes and not a second feels wasted. Every scene, every moment, every joke (well, almost every joke—we get it, Christopher Mintz-Plasse has a big penis) continues to up itself in terms of sheer insanity.

The thing that makes Neighbors effective and unique, however, is that it never loses sight of the core conflict. The subtext for everything going on is that Teddy is Mac’s idealized vision of his youth, while Mac represents for Teddy the kind of monotonous, doldrums-ridden urban existence that he will have to face when he graduates at the end of the year. It’s never stated outright, nor does it need to be. The desperation in the escalation of the war between Mac and Teddy is so gleefully entertaining because we get the impression that winning, while not a fight against the Rapture like in This is the End, is nevertheless of world-ending importance to these two men. First-time writers Andrew Cohen and Brendan O’Brien’s script delivers brilliantly on the promise of the premise, frat humor and baby humor and condom jokes and childish fistfights and all, but it also is one of the most narratively creative studio comedies in recent memory. For a film with such a simple plot, that’s wonderfully impressive.

The film’s look, too, is nothing but simple. Between the laughs that leave you breathless and the surprising character development, there are extended Delta Psi party scenes, which are, to put it plainly, absolutely bonkers. One black-light party looks like something straight out of Spring Breakers. (Seriously, it was a James Franco “Sprang Brayk Forevvvvvva” voiceover away from being the same thing—and Dave Franco is in this movie! I’m going to go ahead and label that a missed opportunity.) Stoller’s constantly moving camera, the impossibly vivid colors, the mind-numbing music—it captures and celebrates the madness of debauchery in a way that few films have the balls or the innovation to pull off. There’s confidence and maturity, in the manic visual style of these scenes that suggests Stoller is really going for something more than sheer depravity. There’s a solid and sincere creative core underneath.

Rogen is as funny as he’s ever been, and Efron plays his character’s subtextual uncertainty exceedingly well, but perhaps the biggest surprise is Rose Byrne. I’ve been a fan of hers for years for her dramatic work in movies like The Rage in Placid Lake and The Place Beyond the Pinesand the fantastic TV show Damages. But she’s perhaps best known for her nice if forgettable parts in Apatow and co. comedies like Bridesmaids and Stoller’s Get Him to the Greek. Here, however, she takes the “hot wife of the main character” cliché she’s been given and pretty much steals the whole movie. She is as fearless as Rogen and as confident as Efron, and she has one scene at the aforementioned black-light party that I wanted to give a standing ovation.

At first I was surprised that Byrne, an actress who I love in a role that could have been nothing special, ended up being the unexpected comedic force of the whole thing. But the fact that the major female role in Neighbors is so dynamic and well-written speaks to a wonderful truth about the film: from the writing to the direction to the performances and everything in-between,Neighbors is all about subverting expectations of what a movie of this kind should be. It’s viciously funny without being alienating, visually inventive without being overwhelming, and narratively interesting without being unnecessarily complex. It keeps things small, simple, and insane.

Is Neighbors something I will revisit as consistently as I do This is the End? Probably not. But I am certainly glad I caught it in theaters with an audience that loved it. I cannot wait for theNeighbors-themed parties to spread across the frats on campus.

 

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