“Neighbors” and the Limits of the Apatow Empire

Neighbors, a disappointing new frat comedy, was directed by Nicholas Stoller (The Muppets, The Five-Year Engagement), but it has the DNA of Judd Apatow all over it. Apatow is best known for writing and directing The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but he also started a comedy empire that has spawned numerous other filmmakers. For example, the writers of Neighbors started as crew on Apatow’s earlier films, and Stoller’s debut feature was Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which Apatow produced. All of these films follow the Apatow recipe for success – raunchy humor for teenage boys on a foundation of family-friendly values – but Neighbors is a pale imitation of the best of the genre.

Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are a young married couple adjusting to life with an infant when a college fraternity, led by its charismatic president Teddy (Zac Efron), shows up and start throwing loud parties. Despite the generational difference, the two families (the frat boys are “brothers,” after all) bond over their love of Batman and psychedelic mushrooms. But after Mac calls the cops on Teddy during a particularly raucous party, a war of pranks ensues that threatens to destroy both the marriage and the frat.

It’s not a bad concept, but the reason Neighbors fails so badly – despite some unearned laughs that will likely leave you ashamed at your own sense of humor – is that it doesn’t really care about its story. The chief problem here is one of perspective. Good fraternity comedies have a very clear, well-defined villain, typically a meddling dean or a rival frat, but Neighbors isn’t sure which side it’s on. Although Mac and Kelly are our protagonists, the filmmakers spend a lot of time making Teddy sympathetic, and we spend more time inside the walls of the frat house (without Mac and Kelly) than we should. It’s almost as if the filmmakers wanted to make a movie about the rewards of growing up and starting a family but found themselves more drawn to the juvenile antics of their youth.

Still, there is a potential insight to be found in this dual narrative approach: Mac and Teddy recognize each other as the same person at different stages of life. Mac is mourning for his lost youth, and Teddy is afraid of his future, but the filmmakers never have the courage to follow through on this conceit. The idea has merit, but it belongs in a story that is more character-based and less reliant on dick jokes.

It also doesn’t help that neither of the leads are capable of much depth. Some critics are hailing this film as Efron’s entrance to stardom, but, while he gets off a few good one-liners, there is nothing here to indicate he is a capable of anything more. With Rogen, there is no longer a question: he is a funny guy but never seems interested in creating an actual character. Surprisingly, Dave Franco (brother of James) makes the most lasting impression in a supporting role as Pete, the frat’s vice-president. Torn between his allegiance to the frat and his plans for the future, Pete actually embodies the film’s theme and does a far better job of representing it than either Rogen or Efron.

But perhaps this is all a little nitpicky for a movie whose comedy aims so low. I laughed a lot at Neighbors, more than at any studio comedy this year except The Lego Movie. But a movie should be measured against what it’s trying to be, and Neighbors has aspirations of a more affecting film than it ends up as. As it stands, the movie has all of the depth of a YouTube video. The filmmakers should have taken a lesson from their mentor, Mr. Apatow: put the story first, and the laughs will follow.

My Rating: Put it on Your Queue

2 thoughts on ““Neighbors” and the Limits of the Apatow Empire

  1. Just saw this film (called Bad Neighbours here in Thailand) and agree that I’m ashamed at the jokes I laughed at. While I definitely appreciate Zac Efron, especially in his strawberry-colored pants, this is not his breakout performance. Not by a long shot.

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