By Chaz Lipp
Back in 1981, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd starred in Neighbors, a now-mostly forgotten comedy about a milquetoast middleclass couple whose lives are thrown into a tizzy by the arrival of a wild couple next door. Directed by John G. Avildsen, the film was actually quite a solid box office performer ($30 million in those days means about $80 in today’s dollars) thanks to the drawing power of its two stars. Belushi was cast against type as the straight-laced Earl. The late comic genius’ career was so brief it’s amazing to think that any of his films has drifted so far into obscurity. Though not entirely successful on all levels, it’s a dark, subversive comedy that is far better than its general reputation suggests (and still available on standard DVD, by the way).
Less daring and less likely to be remembered in 30-plus years is the new Seth Rogen comedy, Neighbors. Though not connected to the earlier film in any official way, it certainly owes a debt to it. In the new film it’s a fraternity that moves into the house next to Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) Radner. The Radners are just trying to live a relatively quiet life while raising their infant daughter. But they feel the pull of their own college days beckoning them. Not entirely on the straight-and-narrow (they still indulge in weed), Mac especially finds himself drawn to befriending frat house leader Teddy (Zac Efron). Obvious elements of Todd Phillips’ 2003 Old School are also borrowed, as Mac and Kelly struggle with accepting that those days of carefree partying are long past.
Neighbors also lifts elements from the oeuvres of the Farrelly brothers, the Wayans Brothers, and frequent Rogen collaborator Judd Apatow. In other words, there’s not much fresh inspiration here. Yes, as Mr. and Mrs. Radner begin their ever-escalating war with the frat boys, hoping to drive them out of the house, there is a steady stream of laughs. But it never really gels into anything cohesive, with director Nicholas Stoller and screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien often failing to develop the comedy beyond the status of isolated gags.
As Mac revels in gobbling magic mushrooms and challenging Teddy to dance-offs, his wife is discovering the power she wields as a smoking hot MILF/cougar. Nothing beyond the maddeningly obvious comes of the former (Mac still likes getting high, duh!) and director Stoller seems to be pulling his punches on the latter. One of the film’s slyest – and sexiest – scenes involves Kelly’s keen awareness and manipulation of the sexual politics of college kids. These characters, and the very different dynamic between Mac’s and Kelly’s relationship with the frat boys, needed sharpening.
Ultimately, Neighbors is about as satisfying as a candy bar. It’ll take care of your light comedy fix, but won’t leave any lasting impression. It’s too bad because there are definitely concepts here that could’ve been mined a little more deeply without losing any of the gags. A subplot involving Teddy and his brainier best friend, Pete (Dave Franco), ends up going exactly where you expect to it. The Delta Psi pledges are non-entities, with the minor exception of the “is he loyal or not?” pledge known by the name Assjuice (Craig Roberts). Lisa Kudrow is thrown a thankless cameo bit as college dean Carol Gladstone, who comes very close to putting Delta Psi on double-secret probation (not quite, but with all the rampant cribbing of ideas, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had directly referenced the Godfather of all frat comedies, John Landis’ Animal House).
Seth Rogen is a very talented comedic actor (writer too, but the only other hat he wears in Neighbors is producer). He and Rose Byrne (who flexes her comedic chops even more effectively than in Bridesmaids) make an endearing couple, effectively conveying the Radners’ reluctance to act their age and fully transition into respectable adulthood. Unfortunately Neighbors doesn’t explore its themes far enough. The material, lacking in real surprises, is only ever as funny as it needs to be.