From a very simple premise laughs can often flow. Though the idea of a succinct elevator pitch selling movies is often a ludicrous exaggeration that would-be writers like to delude themselves with, when it comes to some players in the industry, it's easy to see how the concept works. For instance, Will Ferrell has, historically, sold movies based on which sport he'll play. With that in mind, I can actually fathom a greenlight being given to the elevator pitch "suburban couple vs. the frat house that moves in next door." Especially when that couple is Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, and the frat leader is Zac Efron. The only question was how fast the studio heads could reach for their checkbooks.
It's that simple premise that makes Neighbors an easy sell for audiences, as well. It also helps that it's pretty funny for the most part. It should be a hit and earn those check writers a good return on their investment.
The slightly more detailed description, once we've stepped off the elevator, is that Mac and Kelly (Rogen and Byrne) are new parents who haven't quite settled into this rather adult life development. They are scared of being old and boring, worried they'll miss out on the fun. Thus, when Teddy (Efron) and his fraternity brothers take over the empty house next door, the pair is leery of putting their foot down about noise and risk the kids thinking they're uncool. Having the buffed-out, sex-crazed youngsters diss them would only prove their fears correct.
Instead, the thirtysomething marrieds join the welcome party and form a truce with the revelers--one that, for obvious reasons, cannot last. Things break down, animosity replaces alliances, and the neighboring rivals try to drive each other away. The college boys party harder, the beleaguered adults scheme to get them in trouble for it. There are raunchy exchanges, some slapstick, and even a bit of strange sentimentality (bros, I will never understand you). A lot of it comes off splendidly, though not all of it.
Neighbors is directed by Nicholas Stoller (Get Him to the Greek, The Five-Year Engagement) from a script by first-timers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien. The writing is generally competent, providing solid comedic scenarios for the actors to do their work. Much of the one-on-one between the performers has an air of improv. Rogen and Byrne have a good rapport, using their joint riffing as a tool to play a couple who fuel one another and goad their mate into rash action. They are best together, though Rogen also has some excellent scenes with Efron, particularly at the first party. (The generational Batman exchange is priceless.) When Neighbors delivers, the laughs can be big. The physical comedy, surprisingly, is often stronger than the banter, including the air-bag sequence seen in the trailer and also a fistfight later in the film. Somehow a shirtless Seth Rogen juxtaposed with a shirtless Zac Efron never stops being amusing.
Which sounds great, yes? One problem: there are often long gaps between the funnier moments, and Stoller takes too long building many of his jokes. Even at a lean 97 minutes, Neighbors' pacing is too leisurely. The first half hour in particular lags. The neighbors making nice is nowhere near as pleasing as their battling for suburban supremacy. Given that the 30-second TV spot I just saw showed two scenes not even in the final cut, it's clear that Stoller and editor Zene Baker (This is the End, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) whittled Neighbors down from a far more unruly length. Though they could have tightened it up even more, they picked the right story beats, just not all the right gags. Some of the dirtier "dude, I'm not gay" bits can be a bit tiring. The more absurd and out there the movie gets, the better. I can't think of another comic sequence related to breastfeeding to rival the one here; Byrne is a trooper in what could have been some rather embarrassing prosthetics*. In fact, Stoller should be faulted for not realizing she was the MVP and letting her go further. The dark side of this baby mama steals much of the show.
I will give Stoller credit for making Neighbors visually inventive. The different keggers are all shot to fit the mood, including a colorful, hallucinatory aesthetic at the middle party when paranoia sets in, and a far grimier technique at the last rager, when things are getting out of hand. Kudos also to the music department. Neighbors has lots of excellent cues, mostly hip hop, and they are applied brilliantly. For once the use of rap music in a white-boy comedy comes off as more than just ironic appropriation. (Todd Phillips, take note.)
When the final count is in, I'd say Neighbors hits the funny bone more than it misses. A heavyweight supporting cast--including Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project), Carla Gallo (Undeclared), Craig Roberts (Submarine), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Superbad), Hannibal Buress (Broad City), and Lisa Kudrow (Friends)--fills in the gaps as necessary. (Watch also for some fun cameos in the flashbacks in fraternity history.) Though Neighbors likely won't demand any repeat viewings, it's humorous enough to earn a recommendation. It's a shindig you won't mind attending just the once.
*There's also several prosthetic penises, as well as other penile facsimiles. So, you know, fair play. (Or is this a spoiler?!)
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.