I've always thought that writer/director Nicholas Stoller works best with his frequent collaborator Jason Segel. Their first feature collaboration may have been their best: Stoller directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which Segel wrote and starred in, and the duo co-wrote The Muppets reboot (which I enjoyed) and The Five-Year Engagement (which I also enjoyed). It's when Stoller sets out on his own without Segel - as he did with Get Him to the Greek, Gulliver's Travels, and a couple other projects - that I feel the quality of his films tends to slip a little bit. Segel had nothing to do with Neighbors, so how does this film hold up with Stoller at the helm?
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Dave Franco
First of all, it should be noted that Stoller isn't a credited writer on this film. Neighbors is the first feature-length screenplay from writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, who served as assistants on some of Judd Apatow's earlier productions, and their writing style feels very much like they picked up a few tips during their experience on those comedy sets. With improv superstars like Seth Rogen and Dave Franco on board here, I'm sure there was a fair amount of ad libbing on set, but this is mostly a showcase to see what Stoller can do solely as a director.
Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are new residents in a quiet suburban neighborhood, and while they're a few years out of college, they don't quite think of themselves as "old people" yet. They have an infant child together, and their family life seems like it's going fairly well. Mac occasionally smokes weed with his buddy at work, Kelly is already growing weary of the housewife lifestyle, but other than that, they're in a loving, strong relationship. When a fraternity led by Teddy (Zac Efron) and his number two man Pete (Dave Franco) moves in to the vacant house next door, Mac and Kelly are rightly worried the frat will disturb their newfound suburban quiet. They try to be "the cool neighbors" while not-so-subtly asking the new guys to keep it down, but the situation soon escalates into a full blown feud with wild pranks going both ways as relationships hang in the balance.
Comedies are tough to write about, because everyone's sense of humor is different. Case in point: the audience I saw this film with would often crack up at a particular joke while I would sort of half-laugh at it, and conversely, there was more than one occasion during which I felt I was the only person laughing in the theater. Maybe I just have a weird sense of humor. I feel like judging a comedy based on how much it makes you laugh is a fair way to approach it, and while this one certainly had its moments, I felt like only a few of the jokes truly connected.
But does that mean Neighbors is a bad movie? If you asked me that question a few years ago, I might have said yes. But now I'd actually call this a pretty good movie, mainly because I believe it (mostly) accomplishes everything the filmmakers set out to do with it, and you can't really ask much more from a filmmaking team than to hit their mark. This may be a sentence that comes back to bite me one day, but as a general rule, my feeling right now is that if a movie accomplishes its goal without extending its reach, I'd call that a success. I heard the audience around me cracking up, so clearly they're doing something right. Plus, there's some great chemistry in this cast, and a film can often live or die on chemistry alone.
Rogen and Byrne are great together, but the bromance between Efron and Franco is just as meaningful as the two duos tackle themes of growing up, albeit separated by a few years. (The married couple has to learn to settle into adulthood, while the young bucks realize that life goes on after graduation.) Supporting cast members like Ike Barinholtz and Jerrod Carmichael have some terrific moments, but this film is really owned by its leads, and they all rise to the challenge when the situation calls for it.
Much of the comedy is of the gross-out variety, and I can't help but wonder when that particular style is going to run its course. There's only so many combinations of gross things and the human body that you can mine for comedy, and after this film's centerpiece (you'll know it when you see it, although a fight sequence near the end with dildos is another example, too), it's tough to think about what else filmmakers can do to keep that trend alive. It's been a long time since There's Something About Mary, and it'll be interesting to see what phase of comedy emerges when filmmakers tire of playing with variations of gross-out physical humor.
While never quite reaching the flat-out ridiculousness of This Is The End or the meta-commentary of 21 Jump Street, Neighbors still manages to be one of the better studio comedies of the past few years because it knows exactly what kind of movie it is and fully delivers on its premise. Of course, having a handful of hilarious sequences doesn't hurt. Until next time...