Saturday, May 31, 2014

Boys Next Door

Year: 2014
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Cast: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Sure, Apatow comedies are funny enough. But after a couple years of increasingly bland fare like Wanderlust, The Five-Year Engagement, and This Is 40, it has been getting harder and harder to produce enthusiasm for what were already typically overlong and haphazardly misogynistic films.

What makes Neighbors interesting is that, for all its Apatow DNA (director Nicholas Stoller, co-producer Evan Goldberg, writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, and stars Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Christoper-Mintz-Plasse, and Carla Gallo), Judd himself is nowhere to be found. Sure, his ghost is present in the framework, but this is an Apatow-free zone and, to tell you the truth, it turned out pretty great.

I can not promise that this isn't creating bias.

At a brisk hour and a half, Neighbors is about what separates the men from the boys (and the women from the girls) in one of the most thematically relevant comedies from this group to date. Seth Rogen plays Mac Radner, a new parent who has just moved into a suburban neighborhood with his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne). Despite their attempts to stave off maturity, they can't help but be annoyed when a fraternity moves in next door, keeping them up late with their wild partying and loud music. 

Although the Radners initially intend to bond with fraternity president Teddy (Zac Efron) and vice president Pete (Dave Franco) and feel young again, they eventually turn the frat against them when they call in a noise complaint. This initiates an escalating series of pranks as the Radners try to get the frat kicked out of their neighborhood and the Delta Psi brothers seek revenge.

All I can say is hooray for R-rated comedies. If slapped with a PG-13 rating, Neighbors could have been a delightful but routine affair. As it stands, however, it is a sharp, biting comedy that isn't afraid to go the extra mile in depicting the basest of human emotions and activities.

I mean, come on, this is a fraternity. PG-13 has no business here. 

Although the gross-out humor of this film's peers is certainly present and active, Neighbors is eminently less disgusting and crude than many of its predecessors, instead opting for character-driven comedy that comes from what seem like actual human beings, instead of the sketchy one-note constructs of your typical frat comedy. 

And the gross-out stuff that we do get is delightfully as far from misogyny as any film about a fraternity can get. There's penis humor galore and nary a wanton breast to be seen, except in the most plot-specific scenarios. Kelly has more of a character than "Mac's Nagging Wife," and there's even an entire scene devoted to deconstructing that character stereotype. Go Neighbors!

The characters are well fleshed out, getting at least as realistic as they can within this sort of scenario, all with their own motivations and goals. It's telling that the film continues to be interesting and compelling even when it dives into its more forthrightly dramatic scenes, usually an obligatory but shallow addition to this sort of comedy.

The central theme of the film is the terror of growing up and facing responsibility and each of the protagonists faces it in a different way. The Radners are afraid of losing their youth and being tied down in the suburbs with a kid when they could be out exploring the world. The frat brothers, especially Teddy, are frightened of what the world is going to be to them once the protective veneer of the fraternity is stripped away by graduation.

And that's not the only thing that will be stripped away.

So we have characters and moments with unusual resonance, comedy with unusual bite and snark, and on top of all that we get the most unusual thing of all - modern references that actually land. Because films take so long to produce, those that fill themselves with current technology and pop culture references tend to become dated even before they are released.

That's how we ended up with comedies still making MySpace jokes long after the beginning of the Zuckerberg Dynasty. Every modern touch here (including a solid Game of Thrones reference and a ponderous preponderance of FaceTime) will admittedly be dated at some point, but during this month of this year has absolute currency, proving that Hollywood is finally making a solid attempt to connect to the younger crowd instead of the feeble gimcrackery of past comedies that insist that people are still amused by the Harlem Shake.

We were never amused.

The comedy is consistently splendid, raising the question of why Rose Byrne isn't allowed to do this kind of thing more often. She is the absolute standout of the film, always halfway between her "Decent Mother" instincts and the wild impulses that make her a loose cannon, far more than any of her male cohorts. Her timing is pitch perfect and her line deliveries are consistently hilarious and Hollywood needs more Rose Byrne comedies right now!

The only other cast member who can even approach her caliber is Dave Franco, who absolutely owns his secondary role, grounding even his most emotional moments in an untouchably hilarious comedic performance. The subtlety of his role plays a large part in humanizing the entire fraternity, although the other actors do their best as well.

Including, oddly enough, the baby.

Rogen and Efron aren't standouts, but they work just as well as they need to and their later action sequence is one of the funniest moments committed to film in 2014. Other standouts are Lisa Kudrow, who shines as a pithy dean, and Randall Park as a representative at a job fair.

Kudrow has long since proven her worth as an actress, at least to me, with cult hits like Web Therapy and The Comeback, delighting in once again playing a caustic woman of authority. But Park is one of the most consistently under-appreciated comedy actors around today. I was lucky enough to get the chance to work with him on the web series Awesome Asian Bad Guys, which is the only reason I've even heard of him.

Despite his comic chops and astonishingly pleasant demeanor, he has only been given small insignificant roles for nearly his entire career. It's disappointing that he isn't getting leads (although hopefully his recently picked-up pilot Fresh Off the Boat will help him with that), but he always shines bright. And he is everywhere

He is on episodes of The Office and New Girl. He was in Larry Crowne and Dinner For Schmucks. Community. The Five-Year Engagement. ER. Reno 911!. iCarly. There's no escaping his circle of influence (including upcoming comedies They Came Together and Sex Tape), but nobody remembers his name.

Remember his name. I beseech thee.

So, yeah. Neighbors is a surprisingly excellent comedy about growing up with stellar performances at every level. I wasn't expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, but then again I wasn't expecting a comedy with so much Apatow influence to be so kind-hearted and full of joy. It was definitely a worthwhile experience, despite being deceitfully packaged as throwaway entertainment.

TL;DR: Neighbors is surprisingly funny and has enough thematic resonance to keep the entire film afloat, even during the more overtly dramatic sequences.
Rating: 8/10
Should I Spend Money On This? Yeah, absolutely! You won't regret it. And I should know something about regret. I spent money on This Is 40.
Word Count: 1258
Reviews In This Series
Neighbors (Stoller, 2014)

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