Wednesday, June 25, 2014

"Neighbors" Nicely Uses Comedic Battle to Comment on Transition Into Parenting

Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne have a nice chemistry as the new parents.
Parenthood has been a phenomenal experience, but it's hard to deny that it has necessitated a slew of lifestyle changes for me and my wife. We don’t go out with our friends as much. We don’t sleep through the night. We don’t do a whole slew of things we used to do.

That includes going to the movie theater, which is one reason my writing on here has been so sparse the last few months. It’s crazy for a movie buff like me to type this, but we’re nearly half-way through the year, and I’ve seen a grand total of two 2014 releases, only one of which was in the theater (the other was The Monuments Men, which I reviewed here).

With that in mind, it’s kind of fitting that that one trip to the theater was to see Neighbors, a movie that focuses on a young married couple adjusting to becoming parents. Once or twice during the movie, my wife leaned over to me and said “That’s us,” and she wasn’t far off. Her analogy cast her as the luminous Rose Byrne and me as the shlubby Seth Rogen. That doesn’t exactly seem fair, but it’s hard to deny Neighbors is a movie that speaks to our current situation.

The dynamic between the central couple of the film is easy to relate to, and Rogen and Byrne have an easy chemistry that really elevates the material. This is a movie featuring a couple at war with a hard-partying fraternity, and while it contains the types of gags that setup would suggest, the most amusing scenes involve the interplay between the couple and the knowing observations about getting older.

And that’s appropriate, because while the movie is ostensibly about the conflict between the upstart parents and the douchey frat guys, that part is really just a clever externalization of what the film's actually about -- the internal clash between burgeoning responsibility and the reckless impulsiveness of youth. At one point in the film, the couple cripples the fraternity to the point that they can no longer host all-night parties. They’ve won, and yet the couple overplays their hand, mostly because the madness has livened up a life that has become overly ordinary.

In a refreshingly atypical move, the film makes the wife complicit in the shenanigans instead of relegating her to the sidelines as a disapproving nag. In addition to opening up more comedic possibilities, this decision helps enhance the thematic through line of the story. My favorite moment in the film involves a marital argument over who gets to be the Kevin James and who gets saddled with responsibility. It's a silly way in to a fine point about the roles society places on men and women that go way beyond the basic provider/nurturer paradigm.
You'd think the trailers would've ruined the DeNiro Party joke, but the
best part is the way Rogen reacts to some of the ill-conceived costumes.
Gender politics excluded, these themes also infiltrate the fraternity ranks. Although most of the brothers are one-note jokes, the main duo of Zac Efron and Dave Franco gets a significantly developed and wonderfully weird bromance that is colored by their vastly different views about the transition into adulthood. Both are fun-loving party guys, but for the Efron character, the fraternity is everything, while the Franco character sees it as fun bullshit he does in between classes and job fairs.

The four principles all do nice work. Rogen amiably anchors the film, and Franco brings an off-kilter energy to a role that's pretty close to the one he essayed in 21 Jump Street (reviewed here)  the savvy hip bro who happens to be cast as a villain.

Meanwhile, Efron brings a wounded humanity to a role that's pitched a lot darker than every other character in the piece. One scene in particular is so note-perfect creepy that I'm just as impressed with his willingness to go there as I am with the skill he displays in during it.

But it's Byrne who emerges as the film's MVP. Up until recently, sadness seemed her chief acting emotion (Wicker Park, Troy, Damages), but with Bridesmaids, Get Him to the Greek (reviewed here), and now this, she's proven to have a full range of comic talent as well. The script makes allowances to let her use her natural Australian accent, which enables her to really embrace the loose, improvisation style that an actor like Rogen thrives in.

Still, the film isn't perfect. The resolution is a little tidy, and since the movie plays things mostly straight, it’s a little jarring when the far-fetched plot points pop up. It's awfully hard to believe the cops or the schools' officials wouldn't hammer down on this fraternity more severely, especially given the bodily injury and intentional harassment with a child in the mix. And the idea that college girls would boldly purchase dildos made from the molds of frat boy penises is hard to accept, even though I appreciated the subplot as a gonzo critique on the tired trope of making a calendar to raise money.

Neighbors marks another success for Nicholas Stoller, a director who consistently puts an emphasis on grounding comedy with complex characters and relatable emotions. It doesn’t reach the heights of his Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but does exceed Get Him to the Greek and The Five Year Engagement. If the former’s a home run and the latter two are doubles, you can score Neighbors a triple. Regardless of how you classify the hits, the dude’s batting .1000. A-