Friday, May 16, 2014

The Cinema File #349: "Neighbors" Review

Seth Rogen has cultivated a pretty successful career for himself by essentially playing the same character over and over again. Call it the thinking man's Adam Sandlerian protagonist, a good natured schlub with arrested development struggling with the tension between teenage freedom and adult responsibility. He's everything old people think the Millennials are in one big pot smoking pop culture friendly package. His new film Neighbors feels like the closest we're ever going to get to a direct follow up to Knocked Up, the movie that arguably brought him and this popular character to prominence, but as the film progresses, I couldn't help feeling that we've reached a point of diminishing returns.

Neighbors follows Rogen and Rose Byrne as a young couple with a new baby forced to reconcile their desire to remain hip and exciting with their competing desire to get a bunch of rowdy frat boys off of their lawn. Said frat boys have moved in next door and are initially welcoming of the pair, even letting them into their nightly parties, until the subject of noise pollution sets off a petty war of escalating pranks that, at least I gather from the reactions of the characters, is supposed to be spiraling out of control. The first problem is that, aside from a few inspired gags that are few and far between, the conflict isn't nearly as outrageous as the movie seems to think it is, and banking on what amounts to a montage of back and forth carnage ultimately doesn't make a movie on its own.

If you've seen the ads for this movie, you've basically seen the movie. Rogen and Byrne do something to make the frat look bad or otherwise undermine them so they'll have to leave, and then the frat retaliates in kind, as both factions compete to stoop to the other's increasingly immature level. Wash, rinse, and repeat. In between, the movie almost feels like its trying to deconstruct the Seth Rogen As Self Aware Manchild trope, to the point where it even hangs a lampshade on the couple's similarity to every Kevin James movie, but if this sounds like something way more interesting to you than dildo raffles and weed jokes, you'll likely be as disappointed as I was when you find it isn't really resolved in any meaningful way. By the end, everyone has learned their appropriate lesson, but we never really get the sense of how. We get McLovin with a big fake dick and what I assume are prosthetic milk filled breasts, but not so much with the closure or authentic plot development.

The most surprising element of the film, and perhaps the most enjoyable over all, is the deeper than expected exploration of the film's "antagonists," who are all at once as superficial as you would want your frat doucebag cliches to be, and considerably more complicated at the same time. Imagine if the jocks from the Revenge of the Nerd movies didn't just get really mad when their plans are foiled, but actually looked inward and re-examined their life choices when confronted with unforeseen limitations to their worldview. Or put simply, what if the bad guys from Revenge of the Nerds became the good guys from Animal House, without losing their zest for crazy shenanigans? That's what the frat guys do in this movie, and its done in a much funnier and more realistic and relatable way than anything going on in the house next door. I'm not sure if this was intentional, or if that's just how good Zac Efron and Dave (apparently the superior) Franco are together, but for my money, this movie should have been all about them.

You want to love Seth Rogen when he's in a movie like this, or rather, he's playing a character that is designed so that you will want to root for him, and if I thought for a second that it was deliberate, I might commend Neighbors for inverting this mode into one where we're more inclined to root against him, but I can't give the writers that much credit. The film establishes that Rogen's character is motivated less by the protection of his child and more out of his jealousy over these kids who are still of the age where stupid antics and avoidance of responsibility are to be tolerated, but at some point, I guess we're all just supposed to share his jealously? I'm not really sure. Maybe my Seth Rogen fatigue has just gotten to such a level that I can't automatically sympathize with this lovable loser anymore, especially after a generation of college movies has trained me to side with the rowdy frat boys. Or maybe Zac Efron's abs are just that hypnotic. Who knows. But something's off here, and I don't think its just me.

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