Director: Nicholas Stoller
Reviewed: 27 June 2014
The new comedy Neighbors has its moments of total hilarity with winning performances, but the film suffers at times from not trusting its own premise. Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen play new parents Kelly and Mac Radner who nervously view a fraternity from the local college move in next door to their home. In an effort to head off any potential conflict, they awkwardly introduce themselves to Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco), president and vice-president of the chapter, who realize the power of winning over the neighborhood in order to throw their increasingly outrageous parties. Teddy sees the looming, uncertain future represented in the Radners while they see the fraternity fun as the past that they left behind for responsibility. A blank space exits on the fraternity's Wall of Fame, and Teddy studies his own legacy, concerned about throwing the best bash in the fraternity's history (outlined cleverly with members of The Lonely Island among others in black and white flashbacks). But the realities of having a young infant trying to sleep while living permanently next door to a deafening party set in. Something has got to give as no compromise can be negotiated.
What begins as a funny exploration of two new parents negotiating the terms of their lives after having a child eventually degenerates into an elaborate series of pranks back and forth between the family and the fraternity as lines of decency (and credulity) are crossed in the pursuit of total victory: the fraternity's destruction or the Radners moving. The Dean and probation are involved, a subplot with filming an initiation ritual goes awry, and supporting cast member Ike Barinholtz shows up late as Mac's friend Jimmy to increase the level of craziness. Some of the pranks are funny and inventive, but halfway in, one goes too far and took me out of the movie. The film works best in its moments with Byrne and Rogen talk with each other around their baby Stella, but the second half of the film eagerly drops Stella from the movie, even shortchanging potential humor in having her babysat while they stealthily creep around the parties next door. The film offers some nonsensical interludes, and as someone with a neighbor using power tools after 9 p.m. at night while trying to ensure that my infant son does not wake up, I just don't buy a few of the characters' decisions late in the film. If their baby is still next door, some of what they are doing just exacerbates the noise level.
The surprise here has to be both Zac Efron and Rose Byrne's incredible comic timing and gameness. Unexpectedly, Efron delivers a committed and very funny performance often while shirtless, and his pairing with Dave Franco really works well (look for a show stopping themed party celebrating a beloved actor's film career). He seems to be having fun. Rose Byrne uses her natural Australian accent and is treated as more of an equal than typically seen in these types of movies; she shows a zaniness that works well playing off of Rogen's stoner charm, and I like how she is a partner to the mayhem, not just an accessory or an afterthought.
I think my frustration comes from the film not committing to its inventive premise and retreating into safer territory. There are a few scenes where I found myself wondering about how injured the person would (or could) really be as the pranks escalated, and some involving a house with a baby just do not work. And the film sells itself short by allowing itself to just be about juvenile hijinks. I wondered if there would be scenes where a crying baby Stella wakes up the fraternity neighbors or more introspection from Teddy and Pete on brotherhood and community. Yet, the movie is very funny with some moments of deep laughter, and I think director Nicholas Stoller focused too much on chronicling the party, drinking, and drug scenes in a film that really offered something fresh: new parents trying to hold on to their identities as cool people. Neighbors touches a few truths with some surprising heart, and I think a stronger script by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien would have spent less time pranking and partying and more time with the new family. He would have cut two distracting minor characters and their subplots and shown more of the couple. And that baby. What a cute performance by twins Elise and Zoey Vargas.