Nicholas Stoller, the director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, has mastered the art of blending absurd and over-the-top comedy rooted in very relatable human characters and situations. His latest film, Neighbors, has the same widespread appeal of his previous films. What made Forgetting Sarah Marshall so memorable was that it was a romantic comedy/break-up movie that both men and women can appreciate, likewise, Neighbors is a gross-out “BRO”/party film that both men and women including those who’ve outgrown the party scene will enjoy. The casting certainly helps with the film but the main source of its success is due to screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, whose script is layered with equal attention to hilarity and humanity.
The film keeps the stakes high in the central conflict, a sort of commentary on generational differences but it never goes too far into mean-spiritedness or feeling unrealistic. Neighbors manages to make it easy to sympathize with a frat guy and a young family. Every character in the film is adorably dumb without ever falling into rude caricatures.
Neighbors works best because of this dynamic, in which we actually care about everyone. Seth Rogen and Zac Efron make an incredible comedic team, and I’d love to see them together again in another film perhaps in a similar vein in the future. The supporting cast (including Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Carla Gallo, Ike Barinholtz and Lisa Kudrow) are all terrific, too. However, Rose Byrne really steals the show. She is a riot: simultaneously dorky and unhinged, she nails some truly horrifically hilarious scenes with absolute sincerity and determination. The filmmakers love these characters and it really shows. It’s that endearing quality that helps bring to life the film’s narrative in the best way possible and is really the only thing that keeps the film unique. A remarkably large percentage of American comedies, especially those featuring members of Judd Apatow’s extended ensemble, are ultimately about preaching the importance of growing up. Neighbors is really no different but what helps it along is in execution.
For instance, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Neighbors director and cinematographer were pulling from not only music videos but from avant-garde foreign cinema as well when it came to visualizing the film. The color palate and combination of naturalistic (cinéma vérité) with a much more free-hand approach to editing definitely help balance the film’s shifting between the relatable and the absurd. The music selection is less notable, opting for well-worn dance pop and rap songs for the party scenes and a typical digitally-composed comedy score. The most important factor in terms of noting Neighbors’ execution is the direction, acting and scripts mastery of controlled timing and tone. Jokes and small bits of dialogue are placed precisely where and when they are needed and feel organic and almost improvised at times. Nowhere in the film are you aware of sort of the precise control the filmmakers have or do not have on the proceedings but the strong dramatic through line helps keep the narrative focused.
At its core, the narrative is about comparing and contrasting the young family and the fraternity’s experiences with the anxiety of waning youth. Rogen and Byrne as Mac & Kelly, young parents, are worried about “missing the party” and somewhat nostalgic for the time when they could afford to be less responsible. Likewise, Efron as Teddy, a college senior, is about to move on from the laissez fare life of a fraternity king to an uncertain future. Neighbors wisely intertwine the two journeys in inventive ways even though it never truly exploits the slight commentary about a generational war that the film briefly teases. Overall, Neighbors is in some ways your typical coming-of-age gross-out comedy with heart but it remains to be seen if this will truly go on to be remembered down the line the way films like The Hangover are. It’s definitely an entertaining film depending on your own sense of humor and it’s a solidly produced film in its own right. It gets by on the charm of its cast and the polish in its execution and definitely gives us the old “college try” at something memorable.