Saturday, May 17, 2014

Neighbors Review

Last year's "This is the End" felt like both the end and the beginning of a chapter for Seth Rogen and the Apatow crew. Judd Apatow had made stars out of nearly every actor that starred in that movie and here they were, utilizing their larger-than-life comedic personas in this weird meta way. The movie was more than a parody of apocalypse-type movies, it also felt like a parody of the Apatow comedies that had come out in the last decade. It was funny, raunchy, it had lengthy improv scenes, and a surprising amount of heart. That's what made "The 40 Year Old Virgin" an instant classic and it's been the formula ever since.

Many of the leaders of the Apatow crew are now moving on to different, interesting territory. I said "This is the End" was the beginning of a chapter because it marked Seth Rogen's directorial debut (alongside Evan Goldberg). While Seth Rogen has previously played a hand in writing and producing, taking on the director's chair is a whole new venture for him. He looks to follow "This is the End" up with this year's "The Interview," which will be his second effort as a director in two years.  After Apatow turned him into a leading man with "Knocked Up," Seth Rogen saw his career take a brief dip around the years 2009-2010. There was a bit of a Seth Rogen backlash. All of a sudden, people were getting tired of what they felt was the "typical Seth Rogen schtick." But with "This is the End" becoming a box office success, Rogen has proven that he's here to stay. "Neighbors" further echos that sentiment. So why has he been able to turn his career around so swiftly? Because Rogen is playing a much larger role in the production of these movies.

I think it's also important to note that the same is true for Jonah Hill. He doesn't appear in "Neighbors," but next month we'll see him in "22 Jump Street," the sequel to the highly successful 2012 comedy. There was also a brief period where we all wondered where Jonah Hill's career might go soon after he made "Get Him to the Greek." Now with two Oscar nominations and two other highly successful comedies under his belt in the last two years, Hill also seems like he's not going anywhere.

Why bring Hill up? Because I noticed something here. It's been a week now since "Neighbors" came out and it's already on its way to becoming a huge R-rated hit in the box office. I think the Apatow alum may have found a way to keep audiences interested in their movies. The secret? Star alongside an absolute stud.

"21 Jump Street" had Channing Tatum stretch his R-rated comedic chops. "Neighbors" has Zac Efron in that very same position. What's great about Tatum in "21" and Efron in "Neighbors" is that they very quickly make you forget about their status as "heart throbs" as soon as they appear on screen. Efron owns his role as the leader of the fraternity that has bought a house next store to Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne's characters. He's egomaniacal, obsessive; he's a huge asshole. And Zac Efron plays this part with zero difficulty. He's managed turn his clean, pretty boy persona into the perfect frat boy douchebag. It's seamless. Efron just added ten years to his career by making this movie. He's kind of a revelation.

This is the fourth film directed by Nicholas Stoller and it's easily his tightest. Stoller's previous films have all had their bright spots, but they also could've afforded to be whittled down considerably. "The Five-Year Engagement" made this abundantly clear. "Neighbors" feels like a radical change in style in many ways. It's most easily comparable to the rock-and-roll feel of Stoller's "Get Him to the Greek," but the quick cuts and neon colors of the frat party scenes in "Neighbors" feel completely new. Unlike other comedies of similar ilk, the parties in "Neighbors" really do seem rambunctious. They are parties you would definitely want to be a part of, but you also legitimately get the feeling that anything can go wrong.

"Neighbors" stars Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as Mac and Kelly Radner. They are married, they have an infant daughter. They live in a nice house in a great neighborhood. Mac goes off to work during the day, Kelly stays home with the child. They have a great life, but they certainly miss the days when they could go out and be social with their friends.

That feeling is expounded when the frat boys move in next door. Teddy and Pete (played by Efron and Dave Franco, respectively) lead the frat. Their mission is to do something truly epic before their senior year is over and go down as legends in their fraternity.

I really love the beginning of this movie. I love how Mac and Kelly earnestly try to make nice with the frat kids. In this type of movie, usually the bad blood between the two parties would become immediately apparent. But in "Neighbors," Mac and Kelly doesn't mind the presence of the frat as long as they "keep it down." Of course, the frat will have a hard time complying with this request, which ultimately leads to multiple showdowns between the Radners and the frat. But, I had a blast watching this couple really try and "hang" with these college kids. They only felt out of their element because they're older than these frat kids, but you could easily see them hanging out at these frat parties if they were 5-10 years younger.

Once the Radners get on the frat's bad side, things take a turn for the ugly... and the hilarious. There are a lot of great battles between these two sides and it often leads to hysterical results. However, the movie takes such a sudden shift, once the Radners call the cops on the frat, that the result feels pretty jarring.

If there was one major flaw with "Neighbors" is that the pacing and the tone varies wildly throughout. Things start off nice and quiet, then it gets loud and fast-paced, then it's nice and quiet again, etc... It's like they keep playing with an on/off switch and never really settle on either one.

I also must put the marketing team to task for spoiling what would've been the biggest laugh of the film. The scene where Seth Rogen sits down in his office chair and it turns out there's an airbag inside? Because that scene plays in the trailer so prominently, it only elicited a collective chuckle in theater I was in. The way the whole thing is set up, you can tell this is supposed to be the biggest laugh of the movie, but they fucking spoiled it in the trailer. It's a moment that becomes a lot less funny when you know it's coming. This is not the fault of the movie, but I was really bummed when the scene came up and I didn't really feel anything. Damn.

But Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne both do a great job of playing the Radners. Throughout, what makes the movie work is that both the main frat characters, and the Radners, always feel relatable. You may even argue that the movie tries a little too hard to make these characters relatable. They each have a somewhat "serious" arc. The Radners secretly wish they can party like the frat kids. Teddy (Efron's character) secretly has fears about getting old and graduating college. I wish there was more of a "show-don't-tell" way of demonstrating these fears. Instead we have other characters yelling "You're only doing this because you're afraid of _____" and it kinda takes the steam out of those moments.

Nevertheless, you gotta hand it to Nicholas Stoller, the writers, and this cast. From the outset, this is a rather simple premise that could easily go wrong if there wasn't any talent behind or in front of the camera. "This is the End" felt like Seth Rogen & company graduating from Apatow University. "Neighbors" feels like a culmination of everything they've learned (by "they," I mean Rogen and Stoller). There's still that raunchiness, that heart, the laughs are definitely there. But "Neighbors" manages to do all this within a 95-minute frame. It starts, it makes you laugh, and then it ends before it ever outstays its welcome. Like your favorite neighbor, this is a film you'll want to revisit over and over again...

...sorry, that last sentence was kinda cheesy.

Grade: B+

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