Neighbors is the brand new Seth Rogen/Zac Efron vehicle that everyone is talking about. I might as well join in the conversation. Let’s get this out of the way first: according to some there is a striking similarity in appearance between myself and Seth Rogen. Hopefully we can move past this.
I’ll let you be the judge. Here’s my headshot:
And here is Mr. Rogen’s:
I don’t really see it, but I hear it often enough that I feel I must declare upfront that I am not actually Seth Rogen; I should be able to deliver an objective impression of Neighbors. It is pretty funny.
The movie stars Rogen and Rose Byrne as Mac and Kelly, a couple of new parents who have just purchased a home and are struggling with all of the new responsibility that has suddenly been placed upon their shoulders. Cue the arrival of a rowdy group of fraternity bros (headed by Efron and Dave Franco) to show Mac and Kelly just how out of touch their new lives have left them.
Rogen and Byrne are excellent as the film’s anchor. True, Rogen is doing yet another riff on his established character of the hapless schlub, but the relationship between Mac and Kelly redeems all of that. Byrne is great as a young woman as apprehensive about embracing her new role as her male counterpart is. It is refreshing to see a female character in one of these improv-heavy comedies who takes on as much of the weight as the men.
Credit for this goes not just to Byrne, but to screenwriters Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien. Neighbors is the first produced feature for both men, but they are long-time members of the Apatow family tree, in various capacities. Luckily they have picked up a solid feel for strong female characters that these kind of male-led comedies usually lack. Byrne’s Kelly actually rails against the shrill wife archetype in the film, as if Cohen and O’Brien are saying, “Let’s correct this problem we may all be complicit in.”
Director Nicholas Stoller has experience with this realm as well. His contributions to the New Comedy Canon (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement) tend to showcase more complex female characters. Neighbors‘ Kelly is no exception, though she does stand alone in that regard. The only other female character of note – Carla Gallo’s Paula – is far less developed.
For the most, however, the supporting cast is outstanding. It’s a who’s who of who’s hot in comedy: Ike Barinholtz, Dave Franco, Brian Huskey, Jerrod Carmichael, Hannibal Buress, the Lonely Island guys, the Workaholics guys, Jake Johnson, Jason Mantzoukas. Even in moments where the script falters, the outstanding performers manage to bring it up to their levels.
Part of Neighbors‘ success is in its avoidance of the bloat that characterizes comedies these days. That kind of improvisational meandering that is sometimes effective, but more often yields diminishing returns. There are a few of those types of scenes (particularly one standout scene between Carmichael and Buress), but for the most part they succeed. The ones that don’t, unfortunately, include the film’s co-lead – Mr. Efron.
Zac Efron’s career has been an interesting one to follow. He burst onto the scene in the teen heartthrob roles that immediately cast him in an unsavory light to most adults, but he has clearly shown an interest in taking on roles with different perspectives over the last few years. His performance as Teddy shows some of the range and emotion that was critically missing in That Awkward Moment, where his movie-ending impassioned speech came off more as a sociopath’s last-ditch effort to avoid the electric chair. He is particularly good at tapping into a fascinating darkness (that may be informed by his recent admission of addiction). His improv skills pale in comparison to those of Franco and Rogen, but he portrays a strong villain, showing both malice and depth.
Neighbors is not a perfect film – the themes of gender and maturity are laid out pretty plainly, and some events are spelled out in giant letters – but it is a very entertaining ride. Clocking in at under 100 minutes, it is also a bit of a novelty in the contemporary comedy landscape. Neighbors is a great way to kick off what will hopefully be a funny summer.