Whenever a movie like Neighbors comes out, studio people inevitably try to compare it to memorable comedy classics of years past, movies of theoretically the same ilk – Caddyshack, Back to School, Stripes, Animal House, Billy Madison etc. etc. Movies that are well loved, but that weren’t particularly ambitious from a plot standpoint. Movies where there’s no “big question” the writer is trying to answer for himself or discovery to be made about the human condition (they’ll never compare a movie like Neighbors to an Albert Brooks movie, say). The film is mostly just a vehicle for putting funny people in funny situations. Plot-as-clown-car movies, call them. Ha, look at Bill Murray trying to bathe that cat!
Nothing wrong with that, but if your goal is putting funny people in funny situations, Zac Efron is just taking up space. He’s an adequate actor and totally f*ckable for both sexes, but you’re not getting a lot of comedic ROI. Mostly the funny comes at him, rather than from him. Like the line about him looking like he was built in a lab by gay scientists (great line). Secondly, even an unambitious comedy has to execute, and a key element of comedy is surprise. What’s the opposite of surprise? An unspoken checklist of scenes and jokes I expected to see that the film proceeds to tick off one by one:
- The cutesy bromance scene (formerly the gay panic scene, this now involves dudes being comically earnest with their affections – see: Superbad).
- The awkward sex scene, usually involving comical male nudity, with flabby pale skin and muffin tops and stuff (see: Forgetting Sarah Marshall).
- The slow motion, ironic “cool guy” tracking shot set to some nineties rap song (see: smashing the copier set to the Geto Boys in Office Space). Get it? It’s hilarious because the song is cool and black, but the people are dorky and white! Also, remember that one song??
Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne walking up to a frat house in slo-mo set to “Here Comes the Hotstepper…” Melissa McCarthy doing the robot in slo-mo in Tammy… Hey, you know what makes for great comedy?? A totally interchangeable nothing scene that can be equally mediocre in any movie!
This isn’t to say that the comedy in Neighbors is too vulgar or too dumb. For me there can be no such thing. I love dumb comedy. There’s an intellectual bravery at the root of dumb comedy that it never gets credit for, having the courage to put your silliest pleasures out there for the world, judgements be damned. “Dare to be Stupid,” as the philosopher Weird Al Yankovic once wrote. Trouble is, people tend to confuse dumb comedy with hacky comedy. Where dumb comedy is guileless, hacky comedy is calculating. A shrewd, needy act of trying to reuse others’ thoughts in order to usurp their validation. If dumb comedy is a child discovering armpit farts, hacky comedy is a serial killer wearing someone else’s skin because he thought she was pretty. They’re diametrically opposed. I can’t laugh at you pooping if it feels like you’re trying to kill me.
Neighbors is basically a handful of good, dumb jokes swimming in a hacky premise. There are funny things in it, like Dave Franco’s character being able to will himself tumescent as a party trick (great bit), but it’s not a funny story. It’s not even a story, really.
There’s a difference between a loose plot that you can have fun with and a loose plot that the actors entertain themselves by constantly jumping out of, which is what Neighbors is. It has way too many riffy two shots where the characters have no real motivation and it’s transparently just two actors trying to amuse each other. This is nothing against riffing or improvised dialog in general. Take a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is built on improvised dialog. The difference is that in Curb, within the improvisation, each character has a motivation. The interaction still has a specific point to get across, within the story. In Neighbors, certain improvised sections have no real purpose other than as an excuse to show that “Hey, Ike Barinholtz can do a real good Obama impression!” He can, but there’s no build to that, and it has nothing to do with the story. Also, are you doing improvisational comedy or producing a sixth grade talent show?
Speaking of no build, there are lot of jokes in Neighbors that don’t land because it feels like a character’s backstory got lost in the editing room. Hannibal Burress, one of my favorite comedians in real life, plays a cop character who’s this confusing mish-mash of quirks and conflicting motivations. He wants to… uh… be mean to people… and… eat a sandwich? Another great comic, Jerrod Carmichael, plays a frat bro who… uh… gets his pubes ripped out? Chris Mintz-Plasse is there solely so they can reference his character having a big dick. By the way, why am I watching the High School Musical kid improv while the actual comedy people do nothing but anchor dicks?
Sometimes for a scene as a whole to be funny, you need a cop, not a “funny cop.” Even Ken Jeong, king of the over actors, was funny as the doctor in Knocked Up, because he played him as “put upon doctor,” not as “Ken Jeong playing a doctor.” When you’re building a comedy house, sometimes you just have to sort of stack the bricks. Neighbors wants to skip the stacking part so it can wink at the camera and rub its balls all over the bricks. That can be intermittently funny, but at the end of the day, I’d rather have a house than a pile of bricks that smells like balls.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.