I work on a major public university campus, and earlier this year our office moved to a small building at the end of Frat Row. My exposure to fraternity culture before this was essentially nil—where I went to college they were located off campus and out of sight. I still don’t know how to read Greek letters, and I just assume there’s a Delta or a Pi in the name of every fraternity house on the block. Suffice to say my impression of “frat boys” has been heavily influenced by pop culture and articles like this.
But I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and so, like Mac and Kelly Radner in Neighbors, I tried to reserve my initial judgments. But after working on Frat Row for several months and watching the bros in their natural habitat from my window all day, I’ve seen the majority of stereotypes proven true: blasting music, football and cornhole in the front lawn, red Solo cups scattered about, neon tank-tops, and even an inflatable bounce house on a recent warm spring afternoon. I can only imagine what the scene is like after business hours and on weekends, but Neighbors seems like an only somewhat exaggerated portrayal of what the experience would be like if I lived in my office.
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Producers: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, James Weaver
Writers: Andrew Jay Cohen, Brendan O’Brien
Cinematographer: Brandon Trost
Editor: Zene Baker
Music: Michael Andrews
Cast: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz, Brian Huskey, Carla Gallo, Halston Sage, Andy Samberg, Hannibal Buress, Lisa Kudrow, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jerrod Carmichael, Fahim Anwar
US Theatrical Release: May 9, 2014
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
As life imitating art, I found Neighbors to be rife with potential hilarity, but ultimately it suffers from an identity crisis and a frustrating reliance on stale gross-out gags. It’s a shot of Old School in a mixer of Knocked Up with a chaser of This is 40. And like a bad batch of jungle juice, it offers a deceptively tasty first sip before making you cringe and feel nauseous. Produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg in a vein similar to their collaborations on Superbad, Pineapple Express, and This is the End, Neighbors is directed by Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and bears all the marks of a Judd Apatow movie, albeit with—and this sounds crazy—less maturity and more stupid hijinx.
Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are new parents living in domestic tranquility, desperately trying to recover their pre-child penchant for spontaneous fun and excitement. Kelly dreads her boring days as a stay-at-home mom while Mac sleepwalks through a meaningless corporate job, taking afternoon breaks to smoke weed with his co-worker, Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz). For reasons never explained, a local fraternity buys the house next door to Mac and Kelly, offering an opportunity for them to cut loose within range of their baby monitor. But the balance between partying and parenting ultimately proves untenable, and a full-on war is launched by Mac and Kelly against the president (a disarmingly chiseled Zac Efron) and vice president (a disarmingly familiar Dave Franco, brother of James) of Delta Psi.
It’s in the heart of this battle that Neighbors reveals itself as a raunchfest masquerading as a tender comedy about growing up. Starting as an amusing send up of parenthood and frat life, it quickly devolves into a routine of lewd pranks and tiring shouting matches (adorable baby Stella quickly disappears from the story altogether). By far the funniest moments are in the throw-away scenes between the chaos that feature scene-stealing Ike Barinholtz, dead-pan expert Hannibal Buress, and stingingly sarcastic Lisa Kudrow as the university’s dean of students. Even Zac Efron shows he can be more than just a pretty face, and it all eventually convinces you that chuckle-inducing as it is, Neighbors leaves a lot of comedy on the beer pong table.
Consider if Seth Rogen had been cast as Frank “The Tank” Ricard in Old School. Would it have been as funny? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have made the best use of his talent (and consider Will Ferrell being cast as Ben Stone in Knocked Up - also not a good match). While Ferrell shines in childish, goofy, manchild caricatures, Rogen excels at sarcastic, bawdy, pop culture-referencing small talk. He knocks those moments out of the park here (“I want a tomato garden,” he admits as he and Kelly accept their imminent slide into adulthood) but the screenplay by Andrew Cohen and Brendan O’Brien doesn’t give the talented cast enough time or space to let that particular variety of dry humor bloom.
By this point I’ve outed myself as someone looking for highbrow humor in a movie featuring a dildo fight and projectile lactation, and to that end I was bound to be disappointed by Neighbors. Nonetheless I accept that despite it being a missed opportunity, the sheer scale of its star power and production budget ensure it will land in the upper echelon of fraternity movies and cable syndication schedules for years to come. And if nothing else, it gives me a new appreciation for being able to leave the bros behind at work, and not find them waiting for me when I get home.