Even though Nicholas Stoller‘s Neighbors is packed with great jokes, the through line is about growing up without losing your identity. Too often, “maturity” simply means “the absence of youth”. We put away the fun, unencumbered life for the staples of a steady job and a loving family. Neighbors seeks to find the balance between the responsibility of an adult without obliterating our young, joyful selves. The movie not only manages to find the humor in this struggle, but it also provides a good metaphor for Stoller’s growth as a director. By stepping out of Judd Apatow‘s endlessly riffing shadow, Stoller has delivered his best film yet.
Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are new parents who are trying to hang on to their youth. They’re good parents, and they love their baby, but they miss the days where they could party all night. When the Delta Psi Beta fraternity moves in next door, the couple is torn. They don’t want to be the stodgy old people, but they also don’t want to be up at all hours of the night. Mac and Kelly go over to make a peace offering with the frat’s President, Teddy (Zac Efron), and at first things seem like they’ll be okay. When the incessant partying becomes too much to handle, Mac and Kelly try to get the frat kicked out, which results in an escalating prank war.
It’s a joy to watch Mac and Kelly filling the part of crotchety neighbors without ever coming off that way. Instead, their antics make them feel younger. To their credit (and the script’s), they try to take responsible actions like calling the police and meeting with the dean (Lisa Kudrow), but neither one helps. This forces Mac and Kelly to get creative in how they’re going to get rid of Delta Psi.
Even better, Mac and Kelly aren’t a bickering or lethargic couple trying to find a way to reignite the spark in their marriage. They just don’t want to become “those people” who would take the joy out of youth. Rogen and Bryne are perfect at threading the needle between responsible parents and aging partiers. The two have wonderful chemistry, and for Rogen, it’s almost strange to see him playing a “real” parent rather than the unprepared one from Knocked Up. Of course, he’s seven years older, his comic talent has grown even more, but that youthful spirit is still in play, and it’s so key to why the character works. As for Bryne, this is the kind of comedic performances most audiences have wanted to see her in since Bridesmaids (unfortunately, they probably didn’t see I Give It a Year where she was also very funny). She’s even better in Neighbors where she gets to take center stage and really go all out.
On the other side of the conflict, you have the frat. Rather than making them out to be monsters, they’re just college kids. In fact, they’re fairly industrious and clever in how they choose to fight back against Mac and Kelly. There are no “monsters” or bad guys here. Even though the frat may be partying all night and making life miserable for a young family, they’re not the villains. They’re oddly sympathetic as they depend on their brotherhood, especially Teddy and his vice president, Pete (Dave Franco). “Brothers don’t get divorced!” Pete wails at their opening meeting, and over the course of the film, we see why Teddy is so invested in his frat’s success.
Efron has been unfairly written off because most people haven’t seen him at his best. He’s the kid from the High School Musical movies. He’s the romantic lead in soft serve romances like Charlie St. Cloud and The Lucky One. They’ve missed his strong performances in indies such as Liberal Arts and At Any Price. Teddy is a role that should turn the doubters around on Efron. It’s not just that Efron has excellent comic timing; there’s also a sympathetic side to Teddy that’s essential. If he’s just the good-looking, clever, smarmy frat-boy, then we lose interest in half the movie. Neither side is “mean” even though they’re effectively trying to ruin the other’s life.
Given the plot and the amount of comic talent (Buress and Franco and co-stars Ike Barenholtz and Jerrod Carmichael are standouts in an amazing supporting cast) there’s so much room for riffing, and you can see scenes where it could go. But just because some of these actors might have the skill to do it, that doesn’t mean they should, and that’s where Stoller has grown as a director. Neighbors is Stoller’s first feature where Apatow didn’t serve as a producer (he does get a “Special Thanks” in the credits), and the runtime is less than 100 minutes. Stoller’s previous film, The Five-Year Engagement was beset with poor pacing caused by extended riffing, and that slowed down the strong comedy. This time, Stoller is far more decisive and confident in how he plays the humor. He gets big laughs and then keeps the story moving.
I’m sure it was tempting to let these scenes run long. But Stoller has apparently realized that more laughs don’t necessarily mean a better movie. By going for something leaner, he hasn’t given up his knack for understanding comedy and giving his actors room to have fun. He’s found the balance between the raunchy, sophomoric humor that runs through his previous movies, and streamlined it so that both the comedy and the relationships are more effective. That’s not to say Neighbors is somehow autobiographical, but it is a nice parallel between the filmmaker and his characters.
The “arrested development” comedy has been criticized for celebrating man-children, and the hilarity of their refusal to grow up. Neighbors takes a more mature approach. It’s not a celebration of people who refuse to grow up and begrudgingly do so because the character arc demands it. Neighbors may not be instantly quotable or provide the twisted, offbeat comedy I tend to enjoy, but it’s damned funny and surprisingly thoughtful. It’s about finding what personal maturity means rather than fitting into stereotypes like “grumpy parents” and “careless fratboy”. And if that personal maturity involves jokes about pot, dildos, sex, giant dicks, so be it.