Neighbors places too much weight on the shoulders of its actors

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1 ½ out of 4 stars

National Lampoon still remains the champion of “sophomoric humor film,” with some close calls and debatable usurpers coming from the likes of Judd Apatow and the slew of SNL alums who have flourished following their sketch comedy days.

Neighbors clearly took great influence from the clever antics of the Lampoon crowd, with frat house humor and “young vs. old” themes throughout that seem to be a sendup to the reigning victor’s glory days. Unfortunately the plot of this new comedy never clicks into place and most of the humor comes from the unscripted takes, many of which just don’t work. The immensely talented cast is the saving grace, consisting of reliable comedians doing their stuff alongside an unexpectedly flawless Zac Efron.

Young parents Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) discover that a fraternity is moving into the house next door and decide this could be an opportunity for them to live out their party days once again. At the same time, they have to ask frat president Teddy (Zac Efron) and his VP Pete (Dave Franco) to keep the noise down for the sake of their newborn girl. When they take their apprehension too far and call the cops on the boys, a bitter rivalry develops between the two households, fueled by the frat’s relentless pranks on the young couple. Now Mac and Kelly will stop at nothing to get the boys thrown out of their new home.

Director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek) has proven he knows how to draw strong comic performances out of his actors. But here he just seems to have left his actors on too long of a leash. The clearly ad-libbed bits, usually good for a real laugh or two and a welcome occasional change to the scripted dialogue in today’s screwball comedies, take up far too much of the film and stop the movie dead in its tracks. It feels like Stoller just flat out did not trust his writers’ humor, whatever of it is not on the cutting room floor (looks to be a lot of it).

neighbors-movieStoller has a clear grasp on the modern party movie, which sometimes gets the better of him. His treatment of montages tend to take the forward motion off track due to pacing and tone, something he still seems to be struggling to get a firm grasp on as a director. He does however show some promise where sight gags are concerned, some of which are so subtle he simply needs to set the actors motionless to achieve a laugh.

Writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien make their feature film screenwriting debuts and their novice status shows. Only about one out of four of their jokes lands, and sometimes their feeble attempts approach “unspeakable” territory (a scene where Kelly has waited too long to breast pump is particularly torturous).

And the plot never feels as if it relies on any causality whatsoever, mostly taking on a more episodic nature that does not fit with the clever conflict that has been set up. The majority of laughs come from the scattershot material from the actors, who admittedly are clearly having a ball playing off of each other on screen. Their relentless energy keeps the film afloat, much to its benefit.

Rogen cannot have a bad performance unless he is actively trying to achieve one. The reliable actor comes through here as a strong anchor for the cast, setting a comedic floor for everyone to play off. Byrne is a delight in a more audacious role than we are used to seeing from her. She hangs with the big boys where the comedy is concerned and mostly succeeds, proving to be a less obvious/expected partner to Rogen. Dave Franco still needs a few years to come into his own as an actor, although all of his showings so far have been nothing short of impressive (here included).

Neighbors is no Animal House. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The real hook here is Efron, giving his most interesting performance yet. His Teddy does not fit any frat boy mold and instead has some darker, more fascinating shading to him that we do not expect. And Efron also plays extremely well off of the other comic powerhouses. His strong, subtle work here should not go underappreciated.

We still want to relive the glory days of seeing those classic Animal House scenes for the very first time again, discovering classic lines that will live forever in film history as gems. Neighbors does not trust its material enough to become an instant classic and instead relies on the improvisational skills of its fantastic cast, never amounting to more than some occasionally funny acting exercises. Enjoy the few laughs they manage to muster, but do not count on much more.

Check out our sister website Baltimore Post-Examiner for a totally different take on Neighbors.