[9 May 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
There’s such a thing as growing old gracefully, though the characters in Nicolas Stoller’s hilarious comedy Neighbors wouldn’t know anything about this. For Mac and Kelly Radner, the one-two punch of parenthood and home ownership has turned their previous party animal lifestyle upside down. They’d love to dump their delightful little daughter and rave until the dawn, but their bodies are so tired from late night feedings and various Mommy/Daddy chores that they fall asleep before even making it out the door. Sex is also a struggle, especially with their infant demanding attention and/or sneaking in on a spontaneous “session” and the mundane aspects of such an existence seem to literally sap the life out of their still young sensibilities.
So when the Delta Psi fraternity moves in next door (in one of those convenient plot devices that fly directly in the face of logic, realism, and zoning laws), complete with buff parties boys like its President, Teddy (Zac Efron), his right hand man Pete (Dave Franco), and brothers Scoonie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Garf (Jerrod Carmichael), and Assjuice (Craig Roberts), you’d think the couple would appreciate the sudden infusion of adolescent exuberance. Instead, the noise generated by their incessant debauchery becomes a trial for the fledgling parents. At first, they try to “fit in.” They ‘hang’ with the Deltas and Mac even bonds a bit with Teddy. But when their tentative truce (including a promise not to involve the police) falls apart, it’s an all out war of wits…and wills.
You see, neither side wants to give in. Mac and Kelly hope to maintain their sense of self even as their divorced pals Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (Carla Gallo) love to piss all over their personal pride. They still think they are relevant even if the rest of the world has them pegged as sullen suburbanites. As for the frat, they’re already in deep doo-doo for burning down their previous house, and the Dean (Lisa Kudrow) doesn’t want any more “bad headlines” mucking up the college’s sleepy reputation. Naturally, they end up on Animal House like double secret probation jeopardy, hoping to avoid another confrontation with local law enforcement (Hannibal Buress), and as a result, the loss of their student status.
All of these elements pile up together in a film which finds a way to mix scatology with a serious message about maturity, all within a framework of character based comedy that hasn’t been seen since, well, since Stoller offered up Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, and The Five Year Engagement. As a filmmaker, he hopes to lay a foundation of familiar personality traits before tweaking equally recognizable narrative tropes to reinvent his frequently funny situations. So when Kelly complains about swollen breasts, it’s up to Mac to “milk” her (a previous night of drinking has the duo convinced her mammaries would be lethal to their daughter) or when Teddy and the boys throw a party, it’s in respect/ridicule of the various characters Robert De Niro has played over the years. And don’t ask about the baby and a found “balloon.”
By twisting expectations and simultaneous serving them, Stoller creates something that sinks beneath the surface. Sure, it’s hilarious when we learn that Teddy is determined to get his crew on the Fraternity Wall of Shame (where the Deltas, supposedly, invented toga parties and beer pong), but we also understand that this man-child “needs” this. He has no prospects once graduation hits, but he’s not a John Belushi level Bluto style slacker either. Instead, he views his inventive festivities as the foundation of his future legend, while pals like Pete can actually find gainful employment in the real world. The combination of authentic emotions and farcical fantasy works, thanks to a group of actors who know how to mix truth with over the top to create comedy gold.
Not everything works here, however. Barinholtz and Gallo as an on-again/off-again couple never quite connect with the tone Stoller establishes. She has one mode - hysterics - and he just tries too hard. On the other hand, Lisa Kudrow really sells her extended cameo as a publicity conscientious administrator and Hannibal Buress is a hoot as perhaps the most laid back cop in the history of law enforcement. And yet, the movie never reaches the fever pitch it so frequently promises.
When Mac and Teddy face off for one of those physical comedy clashes that came to define the ‘80s high concept genre, their fisticuffs are more clumsy than epic. So is their goal. Teddy wants to keep the lights on, maintaining an air of “respectability” where once a raging pot free-for-all was happening. Mac wants the smoke out to continue, though it’s never quite clear why the sudden introduction of electricity (or lack thereof) would affect the 420 hijinx.
Still, we can overlook these minor flaws because we clearly see ourselves in these characters. We recognize Teddy’s desperation, Kelly’s need to be included as part of the pranks, and Mac’s ache at seeing his previous party animal existence playing out in front of him. Even in the minor moments, Stoller finds a way to get us on everyone’s side. We don’t really care who wins this battle of wills. What we want to see, instead, is everyone happy and settled - and this from a generally goofy gross out laugher. Indeed, even as our male leads are lunging at each other with homemade dildos (don’t ask), we recognize the desire to inflict shame, not pain. Unlike other movies which make light of characters more of less mortally wounding each other, Neighbors keeps its feet firmly planted in some kind of truth.
It’s rare indeed when a comedy makes you think. It’s even rarer when it makes you feel. Neighbors does both of these things. In between the naked nonsense and drug-fueled frictions is a message that reminds one that, somehow, fighting against maturity is the most immature thing someone can do. Of course, accepting growing up is also a fool’s paradise. Like the characters here, something in the middle seems to be the best response.