Neighbors has more than a handful of really good laughs. It’s also consistently likeable and plays with its R-rating in a way that doesn’t feel too childish.
Mac and Kelly (played by Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne) are concerned about losing touch with their more spontaneous sides after they move into a new neighbourhood. They don’t hate their adult life though. They get a kick out of their baby daughter – the cutest baby an audience will ever see in a movie – and they aren’t opposed to having quiet nights in to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones.
Soon after they move in, a noisy fraternity (headlined by Zac Efron) from a nearby campus christens the next door property with a crazy party. Mac and Kelly break bread with their younger neighbours, but the rowdiness carries on and ends up breaking the couple’s patience.
What occurs after an awkward call-in to the police is a rivalry between the carefree students and the adults transitioning into a lower-key lifestyle.
Neighbors is profane and leaves little to the imagination as far as sex and male anatomy go, but what keeps Neighbors anchored and controlled amidst the drug use and dong jokes are relatable characters worth caring about.
The script written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien is perceptive, and its agileness comes from how well everyone is drawn. The screenwriters are wise enough to know not to poke fun at flaws in order to dumb these characters down and evoke the audience’s laughter. Their comedy works because they want to work for their laughs. Whether the duo are dealing with a straight-laced dean, a perturbed husband, or a keg-standing pledge, no one comes across as cardboard.
We’ve seen this sort of generational dynamic before, but the performances and how each actor compliments the rest of their cast is what makes this material fresh. Rogan’s slacker persona is tuned to a more mature wave to fit Mac, but all those nuances we’ve come to enjoy from the actor by now are there. What makes his performance stronger though is how Byrne’s quirkiness plays along. Those moments where Kelly can make Mac speechless are what helps develop their chemistry and makes their marriage convincing.
Ditto for the frat. Efron pulls off his best performance since his first post-High School Musical turn in 17 Again. Just as that role did, Efron taps into his boyish charm. Only this time, he channels his inner anti-hero. What Efron doesn’t get enough credit for is how well he can use harmless pleasantries to lure people in. The skill comes in handy when he’s welcoming in Rogan before he makes it clear who’s really in charge after their neighbourly trust is breached.
The only real constructive pointers I have are for director Nicholas Stoller, a filmmaker from the Judd Apatow assembly line.
In the past, we’ve seen other Apatow-centric filmmakers like Greg Mottola and Paul Feig establish themselves as more than someone behind the camera who just lets their performers improvise. Stoller, on the other hand, waffles from movie to movie with his self-control. While Neighbors brings home plenty of laughs, you can tell Stoller’s sense of timing with improvisation is still developing.
The problem isn’t with the film’s two-hour length – although I’m sure this could’ve been shaved down by 10 minutes. Stoller has to show more discipline towards his performers and his editor. He has to know the difference between when dialogue freestylng is benefiting the film and when it’s just stalling the story. It’s a tip that Rogen and his co-producer Evan Goldberg should take note of too. They’ve been attached to so many hilarious comedies. I would hate to see their success cave in because of over-zealousness.
A film like Neighbors works best when it’s on a track. When it’s following the plan Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien have mapped out, the results are some of the best laughs you’ll have this season.