A rowdy college fraternity moves next door to a young suburban family, with expected results, in Neighbors, an inexplicably well-reviewed comedy that strings together a series of mean-spirited gross-out gags in lieu of an actual story. Some of the material here is genuinely inventive, but those looking for the next Animal House – or even Old School – would be best advised to look elsewhere.
The frathouse stuff, however, mostly works: Zac Efron is a riot as Teddy Sanders, the braindead beefcake President of Delta Psi who vows to enter the ranks of the fraternity’s Hall of Fame by the end of the semester (other members, related in some nostalgic flashbacks, include the inventors of beer pong). Efron is perfectly cast as the fearless leader so focused on frat existence he cannot imagine a life outside of it.
Teddy is joined by right-hand-man Pete Regazolli (Dave Franco, brother of James), the one-joke Scoonie (an under-utilized Christopher Mintz-Plasse), new pledge ‘Assjuice’ (Submarine’s Craig Roberts), token black (and pothead) Garf (Jerrod Carmichael), and others who are at least a half-decade past college age.
When Neighbors focuses on the madcap frat antics, the relationship between Teddy and Pete, and the disparity between Teddy’s world and a real-life existence (the film’s final scene, especially, attempts to confront this), it hits the right notes. This isn’t a serious-minded film in any regard, but it does contain some fleeting moments of insight that are unexpected for the genre.
Unfortunately, the Delta Psi boys aren’t the focus of Neighbors – they’re only the bad guys next door. Instead, our heroes are Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radnor (Rose Byrne), a young couple looking forward to a quiet life in the suburbs with their infant daughter when the raging frat house moves in next door. Really, it’s a can’t-miss premise: middle class suburbia vs. fraternity goons, with both groups trying to drive the other out of the neighborhood.
But here’s the thing: Mac and Kelly are terrible parents who party with the fraternity while their year-old daughter sleeps alone next door. They let her play on the lawn in the aftermath of one of the parties, and we’re supposed to be outraged when a used condom turns up in her hands. Neighbors completely removes itself from reality by siding with these characters: it’s the irresponsible parents – not the collegiate goons – who are the real villains here.
Director Nicolas Stoller previously made Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, and The Five-Year Engagement, films that had their moments of risqué shock-value humor but were more grounded in characters that we actually liked and cared about.
But I hated the Rogen and Byrne characters here (who are completely underwritten, bereft of family or backstory), and kept waiting for the moment when Efron and company called in child services. The parents have a pair of sleazy friends (played by Anna Faris and Ike Barinholtz) but otherwise no one else to help them in their pathetic war against the frat brothers.
That big feud, by the way – the whole premise of the film – amounts to little more than a few gags that slowly escalate to a fistfight. Mac floods the frat’s cellar, the frat boys behave like frat boys, Mac and Kelly get the frat placed on probation, the frat boys behave like frat boys, Mac and Kelly break up Teddy and Pete’s friendship, and, uh, the frat boys behave like frat boys.
The frat’s one real assault on Mac and family involves stealing some car airbags and hiding them around the house. Given the presence of the daughter, Neighbors feels just as irresponsible as its protagonists by placing an infant in potential danger to create additional suspense.
That climactic fight scene between Efron and Rogen, however, just about won me over, as the two duke it out in a room too small for a fistfight (shades of a similar scene in Raising Arizona) and inventively use whatever they can as weaponry – rubber dildos, a can of coke, a mini trampoline. And I found one other bit irresistible: a Robert De Niro-themed frat party featuring brothers costumed as Taxi Driver De Niro, Meet the Parents De Niro, Raging Bull De Niro, and so on.
Neighbors doesn’t shy away from shock value – full-frontal male nudity, broken bones, and fountains of breast milk spurt at the screen – but it’s failed to provide sympathetic characters to balance all the gross-out gags; that’s the one thing these movies (which came into mainstream prominence with the success of There’s Something About Mary) really need to win us over. Without anyone to care about, we’re left awash in a sea of unpleasantness, and feel like taking a shower by the end.
I caught Neighbors at Cinema City Nový Smíchov’s Ladies Night, of all places, where an audience of young women seemed to eat this thing up. It currently holds a 73% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. I can’t explain either phenomena; this is certainly a better-made film than the average Adam Sandler comedy, but the mainstream appeal of something this nihilistic is confounding.
Washington Post critic Anne Hornaday recently posted a reaction to the Isla Vista killings in which she cites films like Neighbors as an influence on the mindset of Eliot Rodger and other disenfranchised youths. That’s way off – and a little naïve – but there is something that feels analogous about Hollywood’s latest R-rated comedy hit (Neighbors has already grossed $114 million stateside) and the latest USA mass killings: the culture that has produced one thing has also produced the other, and reflects, perhaps, some deep-rooted issues.