Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Like Some Good Neighbors...

It's fair to say that just a few years ago, R-rated comedies kinda sucked. Sure, there were a few standouts, from Tropic Thunder to Edgar Wright's Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, but for a while R-rated comedies were synonymous with unimaginative, gross-out humor and uber-offensive stereotypes. The drought was so great that people overrated The Hangover to so hilarious degree that it spawned two sequels that didn't feel the need to try. That trend of un-inspriation took a sharp upward turn in 2012, when Ted and 21 Jump Street raised the bar by being clever and intelligent, while also keeping the silliness and gross-out humor that has become a staple of the genre. Was everything adult comedy oriented great? God no, not by a long shot, but for the first time in seemingly forever there was reason to actually look forward to R-rated comedies again. And Neighbors is definitely another step along that same direction.
And yet, not quite Rogen's usual fare.
Directed by Nicholas Stoller (The Five-Year Engagement, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Neighbors stars Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as newly-minted parents and homeowners Mac and Kelly Radner, whose life is changing fast and complexly enough without the arrival of a fraternity in the house next door. Though both sides attempt to be amicable, a misunderstanding between the party-hardy frat and the sleep-deprived family ignites a war between their houses, as each side thrives to make their neighbor's life a living hell.
So yeah, it's got something for the ladies.
The reason Neighbors is so good is for the two reasons I often state as necessary for the making of a quality motion picture, but often lacking in R-rated comedies: plot and character. While presented as a somewhat simple clash of ideologies - adults vs. college kids - the depth of the conflict between the two parties is presented in a way that is balanced, intelligent and really quite interesting. It would be so easy to portray the fraternity (represented primarily by Zac Efron and Dave Franco) as so annoying that they MUST be the bad guys, or the Radners as SO out of touch with their younger days that they blow things out of proportion. But Stoller - with a screenplay by relative newcomers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien - chooses not to go that route, instead giving both sides equal reason to both respect and aggravate the other. Yes, the frat boys are too loud, but they're also young people afraid of what will come after college, wanting to make their marks in life. And perhaps Mac and Kelly are overreacting a bit, but they're worried that parenthood means that their young lives are completely over. This wealth of personality makes these people, their motivations and the story very real to the audience. Yeah, there are some one-note characters in the bunch, but they're mainly filler to build up some of the laughs, and most of them work fine.
Wow, they really raided their closet for those.
Now, granted, good characters and a good story can actually BACKFIRE when the execution is shoddy, and Stoller should know all about this: his 2012 flop The Five-Year Engagement was a host of great ideas bogged down by poor pacing and direction. Fortunately, Stoller seems to have learned his lesson this time around, as Neighbors knows it's a fast-paced romp and never slows itself down to think too much about what it's doing, while still maintaining its surprisingly strong narrative. Sadly, its humor is merely second-rate. The dialogue is SMART, the antics are humorous, and the physical humor is well-timed. And yet, it never quite musters the courage to deliver on the hilarity it promises. It's sad, because Rogen is funnier than I've seen him in years, Byrne shocks - in a good way - with a performance that goes totally against her dramatic background, and Efron and Franco deliver equal portions of excellence in their roles as fraternity heads. Efron especially impresses - and not just due to his natural six-pack abs - quite possibly making 2014 the year he finally broke out in Hollywood.
I'm... not sure what to do with this...
If only second rate humor was the least of Neighbors' problems, though to be honest the list of negatives is not that long. Some of them are basic plot points - with this much partying, how are the Radners the only people complaining? - and others the misuse of certain actors - sure, Christopher Mintz-Plasse isn't the greatest ever, but all he gets is a glorified, unimportant cameo? - but most of those can be brushed aside as minor complaints. Slightly worse is the soundtrack, which includes no stand-outs, sounding like they were taken from the local Top 40 dance mixes at the time of filming. For a movie with so much heavy parting, a great soundtrack might have improved things greatly. Now, the presence of Ike Barenholtz and Carla Gallo as Mac and Kelly's divorced best friends presents a real problem. Their characters are as one-noted as many of the others, which wouldn't be a problem if they only played a small part in the movie. Unfortunately, the pair are jammed into the main story for little to no reason, chewing up precious screen-time and pumping out pure bile whenever they grace the screen. Their scenes are largely unnecessary, and ought to really have been edited out.
Yes, they're judging you.
Thankfully, that pair doesn't stop Neighbors from being a good movie; it merely stops it from being a great one. It's not everyday that a smart, clever, adult-oriented romp hits the big screen in such a successful way as this one has, and its success already at the box office means many folk already seem to agree. Should you see it? Well, while it's not on the same level as Ted or 21 Jump Street, if you're feeling the hankering for an R-rated smorgasbord of unfiltered, outrageous and absolutely juvenile laughs, then this is definitely worth your time. I promise you will be surprised.

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