Starring Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Dave Franco, Jerrod Carmichael and Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Directed by Nicholas Stoller
From Universal Pictures
Suburbia disrupted in Neighbors
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
Hollywood has this need to take simple stories and overwrite them, saturating them in too much plot, too many characters and then whip-snapping through it all in a whirlwind of scenes. Last week, the victim of this tragic phenomenon was The Amazing Spider-Man 2. And here we are again with the same problems in Neighbors.
The premise is perfect: a married couple with a new baby wake up to find a college fraternity moving in next door. Thus begins the rapid slide of the neighborhood, from quiet suburb to raucous university hang-out. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne play the couple, Mac and Kelly, who were young and hip not all that long ago. They show up to the Delta Psi front door with a peace offering — a carefully rolled joint in a Mentos tin — that sparks an early friendship with their much younger, much hipper neighbors. After one too many parties, the peace accord crumbles, causing a feud that escalates so quickly the movie is jerked out of its shoes.
The Delta Psi members include actors Dave Franco, Jerrod Carmichael and McLovin’ himself, Christopher Mintz-Plasse. Their leader, Teddy, is played by Zac Efron, who radiates charm and likability. Mac comments on his looks, “He looks like a gay guy created him in a laboratory.” Teddy, like all his brothers, is a deeply wounded kid petrified of his future and of what the overweight Mac represents — adulthood. These two, the core of the film, don’t share much chemistry. Efron, who was battling his own personal demons during the filming of this movie, does not seem altogether present, which only exacerbates Rogen’s sloppy aim with many of his jokes. Rogen has so much dialogue that I have to wonder if Neighbors was originally written for Vince Vaughn. Many of the jokes have the unscripted feel of spontaneous jam sessions, which will be revealed in their entirety on the DVD release.
Luckily, Byrne and Rogen do have chemistry, even as their paranoid characters abandon every principle in their bid to destroy Delta Psi. In one marvelously well executed sequence, they decide the only way to destroy a fraternity president is by forcing his best friend to break the “bros before hoes” code. In retaliation Teddy removes the airbags from Mac’s station wagon and booby traps them into his office chair, the living room sofa and other places. Watching Rogen’s plump form ragdoll through the sets … I’ll admit, that was a joy I had not anticipated in Neighbors. It’s counter-punched into oblivion later when Mac has to milk his wife’s swollen breasts. (Yeah, you read that correctly.)
Mostly, though, the movie can’t keep itself together. Between the flaccid Rogen-Efron pairing, a handful of missed jokes and the abbreviated ending, Neighbors is lopsided and crudely formed. It starts early in the film: the rivalry goes from zero to 60 in the space of about two scenes, with no build-up or ratcheting of tension. Mac’s first tactic is to bust a water pipe and point it into the frat’s basement, because apparently that’s a measured response to a loud party. (The frat pays for the repairs by making molds of their penises to sell on campus as sex toys. The joke’s on Mac when his wife buys one.)
And not only do many of the jokes bomb, but they’re of questionable taste and tone. In one scene, a white man impersonates Barack Obama on a phone call, a call that he ends with the N word. I’ve heard this word in movies before, but never from a white person pretending to be America’s first black president. The mostly-white audience I saw the movie with roared in approval, which says more about them than I care to diagnose in a movie review. Mac and Kelly’s baby is a frequent victim. In an early scene she chews on a used condom she plucks from the front yard. When the parents take her to the hospital, the doctor says, “Your baby has AIDS …[long pause] … is one way this could have went, but she’s healthy.” Because toddlers and AIDS are hilarious. When that baby actress grows up she’s going to have some tough questions for her parents.
One joke was more prescient than it realized: Mac, brainstorming revenge fantasies, asks how a frat gets kicked out of school. His buddy giddily exclaims, “Rape!” The movie couldn’t have known this at the time, but a number of schools are now being investigated because rape and sexual assault actually don’t get you kicked out of schools. The irony of the joke is almost too devastating.
I like movies that push buttons, but this one falls asleep on the buttons. All that being said, though, Neighbors does have some funny moments. But like much of everything else in theaters now, it buries the best parts in mediocrity.