Several months ago now, our Weekly Trailer Roundup was topped by a pair of R-comedies headlined by Zac Efron: That Awkward Moment and Neighbors. To me, they both had potential. The trailers did their job. I was excited for the movies. Then I actually saw That Awkward Moment, and “excited” is about the last thing I felt. Fairly or not, my excitement for Neighbors was seriously tempered (Efron is the only connective tissue betwee the two pics, but I didn’t think he was great in Moment).
That’ll teach me to whimsically equate unrelated productions.
To a sold out crowd, Neighbors made its premier Saturday night at SXSW, and it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say it had us literally rolling in the aisles. It’s no exaggeration to say this is one of the funniest and freshest R-comedies since The Hangover. Now if they can just avoid the impulse to serialize it to death.
The story follows two threads: Seth Rogen and Rose Byre as a couple with a new baby trying to come to terms with the realities of responsible adulthood, and a frat cohort led by Zac Efron and Dave Franco trying to make fraternity history by doing something epic, something on the level of say, inventing beer pong…and just maybe trying to cope with the impending conclusion of college as well. After burning a prior house down, the frat moves in next door to Teddy and Kelly (Rogen and Byrne), and through a series of events that I won’t go into here (but are pretty damn funny to watch), the two households begin an epic feud.
If that all sounds a little crazy, it’s because it is. But the movie absolutely nails the tone it’s trying for, consistently asking the audience not to suspend their disbelief entirely, but only to push the bounds of believable out a little ways. It’s what allows the movie to isolate Teddy and Kelly from the rest of the neighborhood by saying the frat bought out the rest of the block, but Teddy and Kelly can’t move because, being next to a frat, their home value has now plummeted. This is where the real fun of the movie is found. It gives itself license to do just about anything, but restrains itself just enough that the audience isn’t pulled in too many directions. It’s a lot like The Hangover, actually, by way of Home Alone. You want to believe all the craziness these characters do, and so it flies.
A big part of that is the way the characters themselves are drawn. As the old adage goes, keep it simple, stupid, and although I never thought I’d celebrate character arcs so skinny they’re practically anorexic, it’s exactly that this movie calls for. What sets it apart is that is that it doesn’t forsake its characters. Rogen is the formerly partying everyman he plays so well, taken to a new high here when he’s forced to couple that with actual responsibility for a wife and child. Byrne’s Kelly is a woman struggling to stay sane while staying home all day. Efron is the king who knows his reign must end. And Franco is the sidekick who points him the way. There’s not very much, but the way little bits of personality are sprinkled throughout the film contributes the grounding that the picture has. But those are also easy character arcs to complete. The most heavy-handed it gets is Efron confronting his own college mortality, and even that gets broken up by an amazing series of bros before hoes jokes.
Because really, that’s what we want from this movie – jokes – and thank goodness the script and the actors are good enough to give us an abundance of hilarity. Rogen, of course, is a known comic quantity, but Efron proves very capable and Franco fits his sidekick role well, although it does seem like some of the awkwardness of his character is less acting and more pure awkwardness. Byrne gets a chance to leave behind the stuck up nature of her character in Bridesmaids, and absolutely owns it as the desperate-for-a-party Kelly. And finally, a discussion of the cast cannot conclude without mentioning the sublime comic supporting turn of Ike Bairnholtz as Teddy’s friend from work, as well as an all-too-brief performance from Lisa Kudrow.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
This review has ended up somewhat shorter than normal, but that’s because there’s a very limited amount to say. This movie knows what it is: an R-comedy the vein of Knocked Up, Superbad, The Hangover, etc., but it’s smart enough to remain engaging and well executed to a high degree. My patience for this kind of film can be limited, but Neighbors knows what it’s doing. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, it’s hilarious throughout, and it has all the character development it needs without an ounce more. Your enjoyment of this film is going to be entirely contingent on your enjoyment of others of its kind, as it is directly out of the Apatow circle of influence, but rest assured – this is among the better films this subgenre has to offer.
For more on Neighbors, check out our impressions from the SXSW World Debut.