Neighbors: SXSW Review
South By Southwest Film Festival, Headliners (Universal)
Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz, Lisa Kudrow
Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are homeowners tormented by a fraternity headed by Zac Efron.
AUSTIN — It's breeders against bros in Neighbors, Nicholas Stoller's tale of two young parents who buy their first home only to watch the house next door be invaded by a fraternity bent on one-upping their debauchery-pioneering forebears. Very funny at the outset and escalating steadily for most of its brisk running time, the film represents a big win for neophyte screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, and should return Stoller to the commercial peak of his debut Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
Shown here in a cut described as a "work in progress," the picture clearly had its comic pace finely honed. It's possible that, given the raucous response this Paramount Theater crowd gave it, editor Zene Baker will decide to add a second here or there to keep one joke from drowning under another's laughter. One guesses, though, that nothing remains to be done beyond some color timing and technical tweaks.
Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne play Mac and Kelly Radner, who are in the phase of marriage in which they try to convince themselves that a mortgage and an infant don't make them uncool. "This is happening!," Rogen keeps exclaiming whenever they have sex someplace other than their marital bed — though doing it in the same room with a wide-eyed baby is more than he can manage.
They want to appear cool even to their new neighbors, practicing ways they can say "keep it down" without sounding like fogies. On an early goodwill visit, they even get caught up in the fun, staying up all night with the chuggers and outdoing them in hallucinogen consumption. But the detente dissolves immediately, with Mac calling the cops on the next all-night rager. Delta Psi president Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) feigns surprised disappointment in his new friends and more or less declares war.
Less an ensemble than many earlier big-screen fraternities, this crew is essentially two alpha males — Teddy and his smarter V.P., Pete (Dave Franco) — leading some anonymous brothers and a few humiliated pledges. Given the time afforded Efron's impressive torso on screen, maybe that slab of beefcake should get equal billing; it certainly offers more to the film than Christopher Mintz-Plasse, whose one-joke role relies on his character's freakishly large genitalia.
Efron is credibly hateful here, his vacant eyes radiating dumb defiance as the frat taunts and abuses the Radners. By contrast, Rogen and Byrne work each other into a frenzy, first trying to stop the pranks, then to avenge them. As the couple's plots grow increasingly aggressive, Byrne gets more freedom than she often does, stealing scenes with last-ditch deviousness. In one divide-and-conquer stratagem, Kelly seduces both Pete and Teddy's girlfriend in order to get them to make out. Mac enjoys watching this so much he forgets he's supposed to be directing Teddy's attention toward the betrayal.
Lisa Kudrow shines in a couple of scenes as the exasperated college dean who wants to pretend Delta Psi isn't a problem, but eventually puts them on probation. After that, the Radners must work not to tame the frat's behavior but to instigate a new outrage — a third strike that will get their house shut down for good. What these sequences lack in intricate plotting they make up for in surprise outbursts of slapstick violence; the movie only resorts to gross-out gags a couple of times, but the ones it employs are memorable.
Neighbors represents a more real-world point of view than Animal House and Old School, one that understands frat-boy excess not as a joyous manifestation of Bacchanalian life-force, but as a pointless, retrograde enterprise that should be stomped mercilessly — even if the middle-class banality that quashes it isn't everyone's ideal of adulthood. If a shirtless Zac Efron sells tickets, the sight of him being bested by proudly flabby Seth Rogen may sell just as many. Isn't it strange to see Seth Rogen becoming a model for the young American grown-up?
Production Companies: Good Universe, Universal Pictures
Cast: Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz, Lisa Kudrow
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Screenwriters: Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O'Brien
Producers: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, James Weaver
Executive producers: Brian Bell, Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O'Brien
Director of photography: Brandon Trost
Production designer: Julie Berghoff
Music: Michael Andrews
Costume designer: Leesa Evans
Editor: Zene Baker
R, 96 minutes