By nearly any barometer, Neighbors is a successful movie. The frat comedy starring Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, and Rose Byrne took the top spot at the domestic box office last weekend (knocking The Amazing Spider-Man 2 off its perch), and it has even received mostly solid reviews from the critical community, which is rare for a film so reliant on dick jokes. But those of us who like our films with some social context may see it as, if not quite a failure, a giant missed opportunity. Its concept offered the filmmakers an opportunity to address some very real issues involving college life in America, but the film sadly chose a less thoughtful approach.
To understand the better film that Neighbors could have been, you have to go back to its pre-production process. From the beginning of production in early 2013 to December of last year, Neighbors was called Townies. Now, it has become common practice for a film’s title to change close to its release date, as the studio execs start to think more seriously about its marketing. Almost every time this happens, the title becomes more generic (they would call it “inclusive”), and Neighbors is obviously no exception. But the creators of Neighbors may have sacrificed something more important than a good title. The original version of the script was called Townies for a reason, and its story differed in significant ways from what is currently in theaters. If Neighbors had been Townies, it might have been a better film.
As it currently stands, Neighbors tells the story of a young married couple, Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), whose lives are upended when a fraternity led by the charismatic Teddy (Zac Efron) moves next door to them. After Mac and Kelly call the cops on the frat during an egregiously loud party, the two families (the fraternity members are “brothers” after all) engage in a prank war to get the other to leave.
According to reports from those who read the original script, Kelly played a less important role in Townies. Instead, Mac teamed up with his loser friends to battle the frat for supremacy, only turning to Kelly for help later on. Thus, the title change was not just a matter of marketability; the original film more aptly reflected the “town and gown” rivalries that infect many real-life college towns, and when they ditched that aspect of the story, the title of Townies made little sense.
For those unfamiliar with the term, “town and gown” describes the two distinct and often segregated communities in towns dominated by a college or university. The former are the non-academics who live and may have grown up there – usually a working-class population – while “gown” refers collectively to the group of students, professors, and administrators at the college, typically a more affluent community.
The “town and gown” class divide can manifest itself in a variety of issues, and, to its credit, Neighbors does address one of them: noise complaints from off-campus parties. But there are far more interesting and nuanced areas to explore, such as the expanding campuses that have displaced many local citizens, the rising housing costs resulting from the influx of wealthy academics and ancillary industries, and even traffic problems caused by universities in urban settings (unlike students, adults can be fired for being late, you know). Further, colleges and universities are often tax-exempt, which means they are not even obligated to contribute to the cities that they come to dominate, although some universities pay anyway, as a sign of good faith towards the community.
It would have been wonderful to see Neighbors raise some of these issues in its safe space of a genre comedy. Even if the original script of Townies did not explicitly reference them, it clearly operated in the milieu in which these issues exist, and it could have provided some good food for thought for the people who turned out for the dick jokes.
Instead, the filmmakers opted for a movie that is edgy in the most superficial way (male full-frontal nudity!) and ignored almost all of the real-life issues that would have factored into their story. They even made Mac an alumnus of the same college Teddy was attending, just to be sure no class issues entered into the equation. Instead of “town and gown,” Neighbors became “gown and gown,” and it did little to raise the profile of the issues mentioned above.
This reluctance to engage on class issues is especially surprising because it’s exactly what most frat movies are about. They usually frame it as “snob vs. slob,” but movies like National Lampoon’s Animal House and Old School have some subversive political elements by pitting their hedonistic protagonists against the stuffy, conservative university establishment. Neighbors is uninterested in that sort of dynamic, leaving the oft-ignored politics of colleges and their towns off screen, like a nerd who can’t get into the party.