Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Neighbors (2014) – Review

Review: Neighbors is a funny R-rated comedy, but fails to aspire to anything more ambitious, interesting, or compelling. The film is about Mac and Kelly Radner, a young couple who has recently purchased their first home and had their first child. Life seems good. Everything changes, however, when a fraternity purchases the house next-door, constantly having wild parties and otherwise making life almost unbearable for Mac and Kelly. They have no choice but to engage in an escalating war of pranks in the hopes of getting the frat kicked out of school.

At face value, Neighbors is basically a film about warring generations: young college kids just looking to party and have a good time versus adults in their early to mid thirties (who still think they are young enough to lead the same lifestyle as the college kids, but old enough to have responsibilities and horrible hangovers to know that they are really just adults now and need to grow up). Director Nicholas Stoller tries his hand at a few broad jokes about the generational gap, but really the film does not quite capitalize on all the humor potential apparent in the narrative setup. More so, the film goes out of its way to undertake jokes that reference pop-culture, aim to shock, and of course pratfalls (because who does not like physical comedy – I wish I had not already seen the airbag jokes in the trailer though; they would have played so much better without the trailer spoiling them). Overall, the film is very funny – more or less checking all the boxes for modern R-rated comedy.

That said, the film never really tries to be anything more, which is fine, but the audience never really cares about any of the characters. What works really well about the best comedies is that not only do they make us laugh but we also feel absorbed in the story. Here, the story is an afterthought, merely existing as a way to allow the filmmakers to move from one joke to the next. The plot serves the jokes instead of the jokes supporting the overall narrative. Mac and Kelly are likable characters, and the supporting cast is made up of funny and enjoyable characters, but the narrative is very weak, and Stoller never gives the audiences moments to invest in Mac and Kelly – everything is just a joke, while the plot and characters (for the most part) are very thin. There is no real drama or emotion, which ultimately leaves the film feeling unsatisfying overall, even with the laughs.

The narrative structure too is very weak. The first two acts are actually fairly well done, but what brings down the narrative overall is its third act. Stoller wraps up the film seemingly very suddenly without a sense of real resolution. The film asks the audience to also care about the main frat characters and then leaves them out of the ending. Teddy, the frat president and nemesis of Mac and Kelly, is given a very vague and wholly unsatisfying conclusion as well. The film feels like it just ends in the middle of the third act, the audience left feeling like there is something missing.

The main narrative arc for Mac and Kelly is rather unsubstantial as well. They start out as new parents, not ready to accept their new life as responsible caregivers to their child and give up the fun life they knew before of hanging out with friends and going out at night. After the ordeal with the frat, they have come to terms with their situation and feel satisfied with their new life as parents – basically, before they wanted to go out and party with their friends, but now they do not. This is far from a transformative revelation, likely one that will be see them revert back to the urge to get out and go out in a couple weeks (or even days), as it is only natural. And if not, is it not a little sad to suggest that once we have kids we should be satisfied with a life in which we go to work, come home, never go out, and never interact with other people in social situations? But really none of this matters; the plot is just a jumping-off point. The point of this film is to laugh at jokes, nothing else.

Neighbors is really about Mac and Kelly. It is their narrative, but the film also sort of tries to be a college frat comedy as well, utilizing many of the classic troupes of the genre (hazing pledges, wild parties, students who seem to only care about their fraternity and never go to actual school, kooky members of the frat, and a struggles against a Dean that wants to quick them off campus – it pretty much just tries to throw everything in). Thus, in trying to make his comedy more than it is, Stoller loses his ability to devote time to his characters (which in the end makes this a throwaway comedy); instead, he is just trying to create a comedy genre mash-up to garner laughs for the sake of laughs.

Stoller wants to film to be a frat comedy, a generational war comedy, and an adult coming-of-age comedy, but just sort of scatters elements of all these narrative types without committing to a fully cohesive and engaging story. Neighbors is funny and thus achieves its goal, but the laughs are hollow as the narrative never fully feels compelling or interesting and there are not enough character moments to create characters the audience can invest in or care about.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Nicholas Stoller has a very good comedy track record with the very good comedies Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, and The Five-Year Engagement, but Neighbors is his weakest film to date. Jason Segel provided Stoller with good material for his best films, but here the script and characters are just too thin. Hopefully, Stoller and Segel will work together again in the future, as they collaborate very well together.

Michael Andrews provides a serviceable score, but the film’s use of its soundtrack completely overshadows it. Brandon Trost’s cinematography is fairly straightforward, but there are a few instances that allow him to light in a more interesting manner (mostly involving the party scenes). Julie Berghoff seems to have some fun with her production design, especially in her design for the fraternity.

The cast works fairly well overall. There are a few very funny small roles. Notably Lisa Kudrow, Craig Roberts, Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Dave Franco, Carla Gallo, and Ike Barinholtz are all good in small supporting roles. Zac Efron is okay as Teddy, but there does not seem to be much to the character. Most of the time, Efron just feels like an excuse to have someone who looks good shirtless. Rose Byrne is very funny as Kelly and is the best part of the film. She feels believable as her character, while bringing enough energy and timing to also bring the biggest laughs. Seth Rogen is funny as well, but he somewhat lazily seems to just be playing himself.

Summary & score: Neighbors is funny, with a few big laughs, but there is not much more to it than that. 6/10

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