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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Neighbors

neighborsNEIGHBORS (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Nicholas Stoller, 2014

As they used to say in revolutionary France, or even in National Lampoon’s revolting Delta House, “Liberte, egalite, fraternite!“

In the new frat comedy Neighbors, the sometimes criminally good-looking teen-idol actor Zac Efron plays Teddy Sanders, a frat boy president who moves his band of bros (Delta Psi, to be specific) next door to an affable but uptight yuppie couple (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as Mac and Kelly Radner). The thirtysomething Radners, who were young once themselves , just want him to co-exist and keep the noise down. But things take a nasty turn and Teddy winds up triggering seemingly endless hostilities between his Greeks and the next door  Geeks.

Teddy, played by the teen stud star of High School Musical, is described, by Mac, as resembling something created by a gay laboratory scientist. (Like Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, maybe?) In a way, that’s the way Efron plays the role — the way all the actors play their roles:  like tongue-in-cheek laboratory creations, manufactured from punch lines and cribs from one or two hit frat boy bromances. There isn’t a scene or a speech in the movie that isn’t top-heavy with artifice and formula, or that wasn’t designed, deliberately and almost laboriously, to crack us up, barreling at the audience like a comic Mack Truck. It’s the exact opposite of the way a Judd Apatow-style comedy usually works — less organic, less natural, less human. Here, it’s: Are we having a good time yet? No? Wait: there’s a scene with dueling dildos and flying auto air bags and a Robert De Niro look-alike contest with Teddy as a Mohawked Travis Bickle. Hey, it’ll kill you.

Neighbors is a comedy in the Animal House vein and the Old School tradition about what becomes an all-out war between the well-intentioned Radners, who just want to be nice but hip we-were-kids-once-too neighbors, and the party-crazed Delta Psi fraternity guys who move in to the Radners’  sort-of-affluent chunk of suburbia, and  proceed to party all day, party all night, party-party-party till you just can’t party no more.

So, why didn’t I laugh harder at Neighbors, as everybody else seems to be doing? It wasn’t because I didn’t want to. And it wasn’t because the movie didn’t have  a funny cast and a funny director: Neighbors actually seems to have everything going for it (except a part for Jonah Hill), beginning with its cast, which also includes Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jerrod Carmichael (put those two on a marquee) as supporting fratboys, plus Ike Barinholtz and Carla Gallo (as pot-smoking thirty-whatever cronies of Mac and Kelly), and ( a really inspired touch) the delectably doofus Lisa Kudrow (of TV’s “Friends“) as the mean Dean Wormer equivalent, who almost has Delta Psi on probation.

And there’s also the director, Nicholas Stoller, whose expertise at staging or writing comedy — and putting on parties — has ranged across buddy-buddy bromantic comedies like Get Him to the Greek, to nice young couple rom-coms like The Five Year Engagement to sophisticated kiddie extravaganzas like the last two Muppets movies,

I certainly thought I was going to laugh — as I usually do at Judd Apatow or Seth Rogen movies. Scenes that I now vaguely remember — like the De Niro look-alike bash  or  the air-bag flying whoopee cushion slapstick, or the dueling plaster casters — should have probably raised a chuckle or two. And Rose Byrne, one of the wonderfully bad-mouth Bridesmaids ensemble, is very, very amusing for a good part of the movie, in what might have been a thankless wifey role. All that seems like such surefire yock material that I’m beginning to believe I actually did laugh at the movie, and somehow forgot the whole thing, after going blotto until the morning after. Maybe…

You get the feeling throughout Neighbors that you should have been hoisting a brew to the memory of the gone but not forgotten Bluto played by Animal House’s zit-popping pirate king John Belushi, and laughing your generational ass off. Instead –and this bewildered me — I mostly felt a step or two ahead of a snore,

Maybe that’s because the movie doesn’t really have a Belushi equivalent but instead gives us ab-flexing lookers and teen icons like Zac Efron (and Dave Franco, of the Brothers Franco, as his wingman), rather than slob hedonists like Delta House’s Belushi (or Bruce McGill or Tom Hulce) and hard-partying clowns like Will Ferrell and Vince Vaughn and Luke Wilson of Old School. These frat hedonists or reliving-it-up guys are the hairy heroes of Animal House and Old School (or at least the hairy anti-heroes). Here, they seem to be wet dreams for the Radners, or for those homoerotic scientists that supposedly threw Efron together.

The not-so-hot script for Neighbors, by Apatow producers Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, is more a collection of frat jokes than a well-constructed comedy machine (which Animal House was) — and even though it feels like this story should be springing from character (or from characters), much of it just seems to swoop in from Gagland.

It didn’t make sense to me that almost none of the Radners’ neighbors got pulled into the big fray, that the entire rest of the neighborhood seemingly took a pass on the Delta Psi feud, even when Teddy and his boys started going wild, trying to establish new wastrel records and surpass the all time toga-party beer-pong mess-around records of their horny, smashed, stoned predecessors, with the same ill-tempered cop (Hannibal Buress as Officer Watkins) getting called to shut the party down over and over by the Radners.

Why didn’t the Radners solicit more help from the other “grownups” in the neighborhood? Why is the initial détente between them and the Delta Psi guys transgressed so relatively easily? The Radners try to make peace with Delta Psi and promise to contact Teddy before calling the police on them ( a crucial agreement since both the college kid and oldster groups  smoke cannabis) — and then (at least in the eyes of Delta Psi) Mac and Kelly break their word and call too soon. (The movie tries to explain this by having the Delta Psi Guys seemingly ignore the Radners’ complaints at a wild party. But why is that happening?)

Of course, you can plausibly answer that the movie isn’t supposed to make sense, or that it does make sense of a sort, and who are you to complain about senselessness anyway?  (Especially if you laughed at Animal House.) Neighbors is less about the frat partiers than about how the Radners, the somewhat older generation  try to reawaken or hold onto their own vanishing youthful propensity for high jinks —  and how they react to the sex-crazed, self-indulgent kids next door. (The movie begins with a scene where the Radners’  mid-day love-making is interrupted by their infant son in a cute bassinet — though why they’re in a room with him in the first place, isn’t explained.)

Mac and Kelly ultimately have their revenge on the frat boy  sex, drugs and rock ’n roll revelers, but it isn’t a very satisfying turnabout, and I thought the last sidewalk encounter between Teddy and Mac — where Efron does a Taylor Lautner chest-pop and Rogen gives us a peek at his hyper-active tummy — didn’t work at all, unless you’re an abs or tummy aficionado.

Seth Roger is  a funny comedian — a “shaggy man type” Pauline Kael would have called him — and his characters have more humanity than some of the other big movie comedian-stars of today, like Adam Sandler or Kevin James. (James gets a comic nudge here from both Rogen and Byrne). But Neighbors, popular as it may be, isn’t one of his best shows, and Mac is one of the least recognizably real of his movie characters.

SPOILER ALERT (roll over to view)

Perhaps that’s because on some level, Rogen seems a bit envious here of good-looking, charismatic babe-magnets like Efron — though great looks aren’t always what appeals most to the opposite sex — and he may want to show that he can party hard too, when he wants to. (I thought he already showed that in This is the End.) In either Animal House or Old School — or in most of the movies that copy them — Mac would have been a secondary villain, a quick joke, someone to get upchucked on, or doused with a brewski or two. The fact that here, Mac and Kelly win their battle with the Greeks, may be seen as a sign of maturity, evidence that the Apatow bunch is growing up. But is it? Is it just a one-up on the Zac Efrons of the world? Who knows?

END OF SPOILER

I was young once myself. And anyway, I just figured out why I didn’t like this movie much.

In the 1960s, while I was a student at the University of Wisconsin, I lived for several years in private housing on Langdon Street, which was the UW’s Fraternity Row. I had some friends in the frats. But I also had some bad neighbors — including one inebriated gentleman in snazzy shorts who ran his convertible into me one sunny football afternoon, while I was crossing the street near Langdon (with the right of way), and started yelling angrily at me for God knows what (maybe for scuffing the fender on his car when he hit me), and trying to start some kind of half-assed brawl — backed up by the three other drunks riding with him.  They calmed him down, probably by opening another brew. Now, I can’t swear that this bozo and his chums were frat boys, and that his lamentable driving etiquette might have prejudiced me all these years later, against seeing Zac’s Teddy  as some kind of a cutie-pie. But who else would be driving a convertible, drunk, on a Saturday afternoon, on Fraternity Row? One thing’s for sure: He wasn’t an anti-war protestor or a Bob Dylan fan. Or a John Belushi.

In 1981, Belushi (with his comedy-bro Dan Aykroyd) made a  movie of his own called Neighbors, based on a Thomas Berger (“Little Big Man”) novel about dueling next door guys (Belushi had the Rogen role), and that one didn’t make me laugh much either (or much of anybody else). Lots of people are chuckling at Neighbors though. So, what can I say? Party hearty, dudes. And when your neighbors call the cops, make sure you flush all that weed down the toilet. As we used to say back on Langdon Street, maturity is overrated.

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