I feel like very few filmmakers over the last decade have had quite as strong an influence on the comedy genre as Judd Apatow. With his producing effort on Anchorman in 2004, followed by his hugely successful directing debut of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, it seems as though he cast a universal net over comedy films that reached nearly any that were worth seeing. The slacker/stoner/becoming-an-adult/improvisational/raunchiness has essentially become a genre all its own. And when a film like Neighbors comes out, you swear that he had to be a part of it. I assumed he was. Then I checked the credits at the end, and his name is nowhere in sight.
Apatow’s influence is clearly all over this film though. His three time director Nicholas Stoller is behind the camera. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne have both worked with him. Devotees will spot a few other familiar faces as well. There’s pot, improvisation, raunchiness and a poignant theme of growing up. Neighbors should have been great. All of the elements of a great Judd Apatow production are there. And I laughed very hard at quite a few scenes. In fact, I’m usually willing to give a pass to just about any film that makes me laugh as much as Neighbors did, but unfortunately what’s missing is the humanity.
I assume you know the basic story. New parents Mac and Kelly (Rogen and Byrne) move into their dreamhouse. A fraternity led by Zac Efron moves in next door. Fraternities are loud. Babies need quiet. Older people (well, older people than Frat boys) need quiet. Tensions ensue. It unfortunately doesn’t go much far beyond that.
What made such films as The 40 Year-Old-Virgin and Bridesmaids so successful though was the character development and fleshed-out backstories, and unfortunately, that’s given short shrift here. Zac Efron’s character of Teddy is perhaps given more nuance than say, the jocks in Revenge of the Nerds, but he never advances much farther than what’s on the surface. He’s handsome. He has one-dimensional charm. He wants to party. But we really don’t spend enough time with him for us to feel like we’re watching a real character. And by the end, he simply feels like a cardboard villain to be defeated.
He’s not alone either. One of the tactics of Mac and Kelly is to get Teddy’s girlfriend to sleep with his best friend Pete (Dave Franco). Not only do we barely know Teddy’s girlfriend when this happens. She practically disappears from the movie as soon as this scene is over. Why couldn’t she have been made into an actual character? Someone who could have given Efron’s character some more dimension. Where’s the scene where Efron confronts her about this, rather than only Pete?
Nicholas Stoller has directed two real winners over the last few years with Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five Year Engagement (no, I didn’t much like Get Him To The Greek if you were planning on asking). Both were produced by Apatow, and both were incredibly successful at keeping the laughs consistent and painting real and relatable seeming characters. Neighbors looks incredibly messy compared to those two. Rather than tell a cohesive story, it seems like they just threw as many ideas at us as they could. Less probably would have been more here.
Also, I’m sorry to hate on this guy so much, but Zac Efron was simply the wrong choice here. He fails to create any sense of menace or threat. He simply seems like a guy set on doing as many jerky things as possible. Granted, the writing didn’t help him, but he needs to share some of the blame here. When he frowns into the camera, or yells at the top of his lungs, I see a guy who’s just lost. I give him credit for shaking his Disney image and trying something different, but he doesn’t have the skills required to portray such a character.
“Okay, Peter. Is there anything about the movie that you did like?” I liked a lot about it. The chemistry between Rogen and Byrne was very strong and the storyline did provide more than enough ample opportunities for laughs. No reason to give any of them away here. If the trailer is making you laugh, the movie likely will too. Just don’t expect more than an episodic series of set pieces. Two sides hate each other for clear justifiable reasons. We watch them snipe for 90 minutes, and eventually it builds to a resolution. If you’re looking for anything substantial to fill in the blanks, you won’t find it here.
Grade – C+