Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Boys Next Door: NEIGHBORS

An R-rated comedy can sour quickly. There’s a tendency among Hollywood’s purveyors of that subgenre to rush to the R and forget the comedy when planning their edgiest jokes or letting the actors endlessly riff on the lines until scenes grow baggy and dirty. The surprise of Nicholas Stoller’s Neighbors is that it gets the balance mostly right. You’d think a movie about a married couple and their newborn daughter who find their lovely suburban college-town lives disrupted by a rowdy fraternity moving in next door would lend itself to lazy stereotypes and general degeneracy. It does, but even though the movie is exuberantly vulgar, broad, and loud, it never loses track of the human qualities in its characters. There’s an allowance for some small nuance that avoids reducing the characters to their cheapest, ugliest selves.

We start with the married couple (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) trying to adjust to life as parents. Unlike Rogen’s many man-child roles, this is a movie about two adults who are mostly happy to have matured to the extent they have. With movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five Year Engagement, director Stoller has proven himself interested in exploring the emotional shifts the continual process of growing as an adult entails. In his films, the relationships ring true and are treated with a degree of weight. Here our leads are doting on and toting around their adorable baby, enjoying life while still wondering if having a child has to mean leaving their carefree party days behind. Just as they’re figuring out their new, more responsible, fully adult selves, an explosion of youthful id moves in next door.

At first it doesn’t seem so bad. The frat’s president (Zac Efron) promises they’ll keep the noise down. The other boys (Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jerrod Carmichael, Craig Roberts) seem nice enough, cooing over the baby and saying they want to keep the neighborhood pleasant. But then the partying starts. It’s loud, long, and debauched, just as you’d expect. And soon the couple is forced to call in a noise complaint. When the responding cop (Hannibal Buress) tells the frat the source of the call, the frat takes it up a notch. They aren’t just loud and obnoxious partiers by night, litterers and loiterers by day. (That’s familiar to anyone who has lived in a college town.) They’re now actively antagonistic, pranking their neighbors in escalatingly dangerous and improbable ways. After a visit to the flighty dean (Lisa Kudrow) proves unhelpful, the couple decides to sabotage the frat and shut them down for good. The script by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien follows a clear structure, with the frat behaving boorishly and the couple plotting ways to force them out.

With such a setup, it’d be easy for the movie to fall into characterization as simple and button-pushing as its preoccupation with bodily functions, body parts, and bodily harm. A lesser comedy would make the frat boys only villains and the thirtysomethings only virtuous. Here the terrible frat boys are, between raunch and bullying, allowed moments of surprising tenderness, self-doubt, and worry about their fast-approaching post-graduation prospects. One guy goes to a job fair where he’s told flat out he’s “too dumb.” Later, one frat kid earnestly tells another, “You don’t like them [the neighbors] because they remind you of the future.” As for those neighbors, they like smoking a little weed now and then, want to keep their sex life interesting, and have real doubts about the suburban bliss they feel pressure to want. These unexpected shadings go a long way towards balancing the broader, dumber moments.

Some of the situations are unlikely. (Wouldn’t the couple at least close their curtains at night?) Slapstick – like a violent and far-fetched airbags prank – and gross-out gags – like a breastfeeding emergency or, worse, a mix-up involving a discarded, unused prophylactic – might go too far. But the film remains largely likable because it has the right balance. Cinematographer Brandon Trost (who also worked on the better-looking-than-you’d-think This is the End) shoots with a slick, loosely held style that gives weight and a degree of realism to the proceedings. Maybe that’s why the more exaggerated moments feel a bit false, but it also helps sell the truth in the solid performances. Rogen and Byrne have warm chemistry and easy repartee. I particularly liked them arguing about who gets to be the irresponsible Kevin James-type in their marriage. Around them the ensemble – from Efron and Franco on down – is well-cast and well-deployed. And the baby is adorable, ready to give cute cutaway reaction shots while being kept nice and safe, sleeping peacefully when the most dangerous moments erupt.

Too often movies about frats want to wink, nudge, and enjoy the sexism, racism, carousing, and homophobic hazing, wallowing in celebratory immaturity. It’s good, then, that Neighbors finds itself squarely on the side of growing up, saying to do so means finding the proper balance between partying and responsibility. It likes its characters, even when they make mistakes, even at their most caricatured and stereotypical. It’s not a great comedy, a little low on laughs, but it’s pleasant enough to be a decent time at the movies. Without a mean spirit and with a relatively short runtime of 90 minutes and change, it’s the rare R-rated comedy that accommodates dirty jokes, bad behavior, and even a few unfunny scenes, without going sour. 

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