By Melissa Agar
Neighbors (Universal, 2014) - Director: Nicholas Stoller. Writers: Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O’Brien. Cast: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz, & Carla Gallo. Color, 96 minutes.
Let me tell you, friends, it has been a long and busy winter and spring. As a high school English teacher, the past several months have been consumed with coaching a speech team, directing a spring musical, attending a bevy of workshops and seminars, working on completely revamping and designing curricula in the face of the onset of the Common Core standards, and trying to stay on top of the piles of grading essays and research papers and extended response paragraphs that I keep assigning to kids. Every weekend, I pledge to take some time for myself and go to a movie, and every weekend, I find myself curled up in a pair of sweats and grading or taking off for a workshop to inspire new lesson plans. Finally, last Friday night, I decided professional responsibilities were sated enough that I could grab a pizza with my sister and head over to the multiplex. After long weeks at work, we both decided that we needed something silly and relatively mindless and lo and behold, there was Neighbors. There’s nothing quite like 90 or so minutes of penis jokes to alleviate a stress-filled week.
In a way, Neighbors is a sort of spiritual cousin to Knocked Up, the movie that made Seth Rogen the schlumpy leading man he is today. Here, Rogen plays Mac Radner, a pushing thirty-something new father. Mac and his wife Kelly (Byrne) are struggling to balance their formerly carefree life filled with spontaneous adventures and sex with the demands of a six month old. It doesn’t help that they have friends like divorcees Jimmy (Barinholtz) and Paula (Gallo) who encourage them to sneak off to smoke weed during work or bring the baby to a rumored Prince-headlining late-night rave. Mac and Kelly love their daughter but are also a little reluctant to bid farewell to their youth. Enter their new neighbors: the brothers of the Delta Psi Beta fraternity.
After burning down their own house, the brothers have moved into Mac and Kelly’s quiet neighborhood and immediately begin turning things upside down with their all-hours parties and shenanigans. Led by president Teddy (Efron) and vice president Pete (Franco), the fraternity is determined that this will be the year that earns them a spot on the house’s party Wall of Fame, alongside such luminaries as the guys who invented the toga party and the first brothers to attempt beer pong. Needless to say, this quest doesn’t really mesh well with a six-month-old baby or her parents next door. Mac and Kelly try befriending the brothers, hoping that they will be so impressed with their “cool” neighbors that they’ll “keep it down.” (A scene where Rogen and Byrne rehearse how they’ll deliver that simple three-word request is awkwardly hilarious.) Eventually, the Radners and the Delta Psi’s find themselves at war with tensions and pranks escalating at an alarming rate.
To be sure, there are a lot of laughs here. Rogen is a natural comedian, and the spins he puts on many line readings alone guarantees plenty of chuckles. Yes, a lot of the humor is crass. A lot of the jokes use the penis as a punchline, but the characters we are given are so engaging and charming that it’s hard not to laugh.
One of the things that worked well here is that the script by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien manages to elicit sympathy for both sides of the fence. As much as we like Mac and Kelly, we also grow to like Teddy and Dave and understand what’s driving them in their quest for a good time. Just as Mac is struggling with accepting that he is truly an adult with adult responsibilities and the sacrifices that entails, Teddy is struggling with his looming graduation and his realization that he’s maybe not as ready for the real world as he should be. The war, then, becomes a symbol of the struggles both men are facing and how desperately they need a “win” on this one.
While the film is largely driven by the antics of Mac and Teddy, it was also refreshing to see Byrne’s Kelly just as willing to get down and dirty when it comes to sabotaging the Delta Psi’s. So often in movies like this, the woman is either arm candy or the harpy yelling at her husband to grow up. Here, Kelly urges Mac and is a true partner in crime. Kelly is devious and creative and perhaps even a bit of a trendsetter in terms of giving us a strong woman in a fun, loving, healthy relationship. Byrne is a surprisingly gifted comic actor who more than holds her own with Rogen and crew.
Neighbors is not a movie for everyone. I was a bit shocked at the large number of young children at the 9:15 pm showing I attended particularly considering the incredibly raunchy humor that permeates the film. More than one joke made this fortysomething blush; I can’t imagine sitting next to a 10 year old and hearing the same jokes. For those not averse to raunch, though, Neighbors is not a bad way to spend a couple hours. I definitely felt the stress of the past couple months evaporate after 90 minutes of frat hijinks, and you just might, too.