We're nearing the year's halfway point and we have had precious little when it comes to funny movies. In fact, we're sort of forgetting what it is like to laugh...
Thankfully, the summer movie season is almost always full of glossy, high concept studio fare designed to tickle your funny bone with maximum efficiency. And the first movie to enter the summer box office laugh-off is Universal's "Neighbors," starring Seth Rogen as a peaceable new father whose tranquility is interrupted by the frat house that moves in next door, led by a typically handsome and charming Zac Efron.
You know what this means: hijinks galore. As the two neighbors escalate their tactics, things get really wild. And this pretty much sums up the entirety of the plot of "Neighbors." It's one of those high concept comedies where the central conceit, as simple as it might be, is pretty much all it has to go on. But is this threadbare plot enough to go on? Or will this movie have you darting for the exit instead of clutching your side?
1. It's the Funniest Studio Comedy Since 'Anchorman 2'
In other words: it's easily the funniest movie of 2014. Back when I saw "Neighbors" at the SXSW Film Festival, I was pretty sure that the theater was in danger of collapsing in on itself. The audience loved it. I cannot remember the last time an audience responded so enthusiastically to a movie. And it's not just in the magic feel good Kool-Aid of SXSW; the movie really is that good and that funny. People walked out of the screening with big stupid grins on their faces. "Did you love it as much as I did?" was the most frequently asked question afterwards. The unanimous response: YES.
2. The Boys Are Hilarious...
The idea of Seth Rogen facing off against Zac Efron is, in concept, already pretty hilarious. Although the execution could have been iffy, even spotty, if given the wrong treatment (especially after Efron's performance in earlier-this-year's totally unfunny "That Awkward Moment"); thankfully, it totally works. Both actors are totally committed to their respective roles and in those initial scenes when they're trying to bond, it almost plays like a scene out of "Looper" or something, with Rogen visiting his younger, more hard-partying self. Their respective styles of comedy are so different, too, with Efron's square-jawed earnestness bristling against Rogen's more self-referential wise-assery. It's wonderful to watch those two collide and see the sparks fly (all over the place).
3. ... But Rose Byrne Steals the Movie
No matter how great the two leads are, they are always (and consistently) being upstaged by Rose Byrne, who plays Rogen's Australian wife with a wily intelligence and phenomenal comic edge. Byrne is a versatile actress of the highest order, having starred in everything from Danny Boyle's apocalyptic sci-fi movie "Sunshine" to "Bridesmaids" (and "Neighbors" director Nick Stoller's unsung masterpiece "Get Him to the Greek"). But here, she is at her absolute funniest. There is one scene in particular, where she turns the tables on the guys at one of the outrageous frat parties, that is absolutely jaw-dropping. (During the SXSW screenings, this is one of the moments when I questioned the structural integrity of the building.) The less said about what she actually does in the movie, the better. Just know that she's a total gem.
4. The Look of the Movie Is Unbelievable
Comedies are typically shot in very bright overhead lights, with harsh shadows and a flat look. "Neighbors," by contrast, is totally gorgeous -- it's warm and beautiful and the party sequences are unlike anything that you've ever seen on film. They make the party in "Project X" seem like a little kid's slumber party by comparison. And they look so, so amazing. At the SXSW screening, Stoller said that one of the inspirations for the "black light party" was the hyper-sexualized French drama "Enter the Void." And you can see why: everything is neon and flashing, to the point of it reaching near hallucinogenic heights. And I mean this as a good thing.
5. It's Pretty Identifiable, Funnily Enough
As outrageous and occasionally fantastical as the movie gets, it's also incredibly warm-hearted and, if you're starting to push into your 30s, when things slow down and everyone is wearing rings and having babies, totally identifiable. It's nice to see Rogen mature with his content. It would have been a bummer if he was still holding on to the 20-something loser of "Knocked Up" or "Pineapple Express." He's getting older, and his character reflects that. In a weird way it's an incredibly loving tribute to the kind of suburban bliss that can be formed once you get past all of the rowdiness of youth. Settling down with people you love, the movie argues, can be life's biggest party.
6. They Definitely Push the R-rating
Of course, this isn't to say that the movie is squeaky clean or fluffy. It's not. And it uses and abuses that R-rating. When there is a running joke about a character who can give himself a massive erection at will, then you know what kind of movie you're dealing with here. (I can't even mention the really filthy stuff.) So just prepare yourself. It gets wild.
7. Ike Barinholtz Continues to Be a Modern Comedy MVP
If you watch "The Mindy Project" on Fox you know that Ike Barinholtz is one of the only reasons to keep watching "The Mindy Project" on Fox. (In retrospect, he also turned in a truly jaw-dropping performance on "Eastbound & Down" as a Russian baseball player. The fact that he's nearly unrecognizable in that role is a testament to how insanely talented he is.) He's that damn good. And as the best friend character to Seth Rogen, he's now being able to display his affable goofiness and manic energy to a much, much wider audience. Is it too early to print up "Team Ike Barinholtz" T-shirts?
8. A Lot of the Stuff in the Trailers Isn't in the Movie
There have been a billion TV spots and theatrical trailers for "Neighbors." And a lot of them are full of scenes and sequences that aren't in the final version of the movie. This is telling, in the sense that they must have shot so much footage, and also that Universal is cannily marketing the sh-- out of the movie without actually giving anything away. Spoiling what is in the final movie and what isn't would kind of ruin the whole experience, but a hat tip to whoever was behind this truly ingenious marketing maneuver.
9. It, Thankfully, Doesn't Feel Like a 'Bully' Movie
One of the problems with the recent (and aforementioned) "Project X" was that it felt like a movie in which the bullies aren't only the main characters, but they are characters that we are supposed to be openly celebrating. They're jerks, and we're supposed to applaud them for it. "Neighbors" takes a different approach, in the fact that the frat guys are actually all really decent (and obviously quite adorable) dudes who have a lot more going on underneath their jocky exterior (particularly when it comes to the character played by Dave Franco). It was a refreshing change of pace and another example of the movie being made by a bunch of people who have never set foot inside a fraternity...
10. You'll Love It Even if You Were Never in a Frat
... Which brings me to the final thing you need to know about "Neighbors": you'll love it even if you were never in a fraternity or sorority. (As someone who went to a tiny liberal arts college in New York City; I barely understand how fraternities work. Outside of what I remember from "Animal House.") That might be the most miraculous thing of all about "Neighbors," a movie that seems to actively work in spite of itself -- it's a movie that makes you feel like you're a part of the club, no matter who you are. And let me tell you, the parties are killer.
Photo courtesy Universal