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‘Neighbors': The Bro Comedy Grows Up

It may seem counterintuitive to praise the emotional maturity of a movie whose climax includes a dildo fight, but there you have it. Neighbors is the new comedy from director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five Year Engagement), starring Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as new parents, and Zac Efron and Dave Franco as the heads of the fraternity that moves in next door to them. The high concept is broad and simple: “FAMILY VS. FRAT,” as the ad line rather simplistically summarizes. But it’s about more than that — and hints at some interesting possibilities for comedies of its ilk.

Rogen and Byrne play Mac and Kelly Radner, a happily married couple with an adorable baby daughter and a suburban home that they spent every penny on. It’s a comfortable, grown-up existence, though they — and he, particularly — harbor some anxieties about maturing. “Just because we have a house and a baby doesn’t mean we’re old people,” he tells her, but it sounds more like he’s trying to talk himself into it. They may not be old yet, per se, but they certainly aren’t hip anymore, which becomes abundantly clear when they try to introduce themselves to the frat boys as “the cool neighbors” who just want them to keep the noise down, oh, every night.

Their attempts at friendly interaction aren’t cool; they’re a painfully awkward mix of dated slang, peculiar hand gestures, and contrived laissez-faire. But the frat guys welcome them anyway, and the Radners show up as baby monitor-toting guests at the fraternity’s first all-night blowout. They take the welcome opportunity to blow off steam and feel like college kids again, but there’s a spike of melancholy to it; Mac advises fraternity president Teddy (Efron, very funny and admirably self-aware) to enjoy this time, because “Soon you blink and you’re the oldest guy at the party. And it’s fucking terrible.” Enjoying a work-break joint with his pal Jimmy (the invaluable Ike Barinholtz), he voices similar concerns: “My life is over! Everything’s different!”

Zac Efron in "Neighbors"

So the real subject of Neighbors, beyond the Animal House vs. Everybody Loves Raymond setup, is the realization that this new existence isn’t fucking terrible — because if it were, their life of charmed domesticity, of Sunday brunches and trips to the Container Store, wouldn’t be worth fighting for. The raucous parties next door aren’t just keeping Mac and Kelly’s baby up; it’s assaulting their very being, what they are and what they have become. The picture’s frat humor allows the filmmakers to have their cake and eat it too, getting weed and dick-joke laughs from the bro audience, but make no mistake: the film’s sympathies lie firmly with the yuppies next door, and that shift in perspective is significant.

To that end, it’s worth noting that while Neighbors features the expected buddy-comedy dynamic, the buddies in question are not a guy and his bro, but a guy and his wife. The comic MVP of the film is Rose Byrne, who pretty much walks away with the picture; she’s endlessly funny and likable, and her byplay with Rogen is far more interesting than the standard real-woman-who-turns-the-boy-into-a-man bullshit. It’s a marriage as partnership, where they love each other, are still hot for each other, and have each other’s backs. Throughout the narrative, they have a common goal, and they’re a good team — and the moment when she orchestrates their most successful infiltration is the film’s highlight, a beat where Byrne is funny, brilliant, and sexy, all at once. She can pretty much do anything, in other words.

But most importantly, writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien take the opportunity to slyly comment on the gender politics of mainstream comedy. The couple at the film’s center don’t fight often, but they do have one big blowout, and it’s a fascinating scene. Rogen explicitly compares himself to a character in a Kevin James movie, the lumbering fuck-up who needs his wife’s responsibility as counterbalance; “We can’t both be Kevin James!” he insists, and he still wants to occasionally do ‘shrooms with teenagers. But she’s not having it; she doesn’t want to be the killjoy taxed with taming the man-child and teaching him to be a grown-up, advising him to “find your nagging wife” elsewhere.

Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne in "Neighbors"

This is a markedly different approach from the rather decorative role often played by women in today’s mainstream comedies. Judd Apatow’s name is nowhere in Neighbors’ credits, but he’s all over its DNA: he produced Stoller’s last three directorial efforts and Byrne’s comic breakthrough Bridesmaids, and has collaborated with Rogen on countless occasions. He, and the writers, actors, and directors he’s mentored, are growing up, and interested in more mature concerns. The fear of being old isn’t just voiced by Rogen; Dave Franco, as Efron’s best friend, points out that their frat battle should be of little consequence so close to graduation (“We’re about to be adults. In two weeks none of this is gonna matter”), unless it’s personal (“Why do you think you’re so obsessed with that old couple next door? You’re afraid they’re your future”).

Fear of aging is highly relatable. (Frankly, so is the conflict at the film’s center: my wife and I have an eight-month-old, with even some of the same toys as the baby in the movie, and are currently knee-deep in a move brought on by noisy neighbors. So read into that whatever you’d like.) The idea of sharing a perspective that ages with your audience, as Stoller does here and as Apatow has in his last two films, is admirable — the alternative, it seems, is to go the Sandler and Company route, perpetually making lobotomized comedies for the next crop of 15-year-olds, as the current one slowly and painfully outgrows your infantile efforts. That may be the more financially lucrative strategy, but this one leaves you with something more valuable: a true comic voice.

Neighbors is out Friday in wide release.

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