Comedies, perhaps more than any other genre, are subjective. While all can agree that a drama about the loss of a child is inherently sad, not everyone will agree on what is funny. Our senses of humor have been shaped by our upbringing and the various life events we’ve experienced. Some may find humor in blacker than black comedies about death while others simply want their comedies to be lighthearted and goofy.
However, there’s a subgenre that of comedy that can only be described as cruel comedy. This cruel humor is what fuels the new Seth Rogen and Zac Efron film, “Neighbors.” If you’re averse to comedy that stems from unlikable characters doing bad things to each other, as I am, this film won’t do much for you. Despite some legitimate laughs, the pervading savagery on display is enough to make “Neighbors” little more than a waste of time.
The story is simple. Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) move into a nice neighborhood with their infant child. They’ve poured nearly everything they have into their new house and are hoping that this will give them the opportunity to raise their kid in a peaceful, happy environment. Their hopes are dashed, however, when a fraternity moves in next door. Despite some initial kind words, a feud eventually breaks out between the couple and the frat, led by President Teddy Sanders (Efron), after a late night party that prevents them from getting a good night’s rest. Mac and Kelly’s only goal from there on out is to get them to leave, no matter what the cost.
The movie tries to set this story up with Teddy as the antagonist, the evil, unruly hellion turning Mac and Kelly’s lives into a waking nightmare, while Mac and Kelly are the heroes we’re supposed to root for. However, Mac and Kelly are no better than Teddy. They manipulate Teddy and his crew while they facilitate many acts of sabotage. Frankly, nobody in this movie handles themselves in a way befitting an actual person and their actions only prove to make things worse. It’s lucky they’re in a movie because in a real world context, they would all be thrown in jail.
Prior to their feud, Mac and Kelly join Teddy and his frat during a party. Their hope is that it will make them seem cool to the kids and, in return, they’ll respect them when they ask them to keep it down, but the night leads to debauchery. They leave their infant child alone in their house while they dance next door abusing any harmful substance they can get their hands on. These people, regardless of their initial intentions, aren’t fit to be parents and the only appropriate following scene would be for child services to show up and take their kid away.
Teddy is even worse and actually goes out of his way to cause harm to the others. At one point, he steals the airbags out of Mac and Kelly’s car and hides them around their house. This leads to some of the dumbest slapstick humor one can imagine, where a slight burst of air sends them flying all the way across the room like an explosion just went off.
After Teddy falls prey to a couple of these hidden objects, he begins to search around, poking his furniture with a wooden pole to see if it contains an airbag. He hesitates before poking his child’s bed and lets out a thankful sigh when nothing happens, which is supposed to show that Teddy, as ruthless as he can be, would never sink so low.
Unfortunately, that pesky thing called logic rears its ugly head when you consider that Teddy could have very easily been holding his child when he fell culprit to the other hidden airbags, potentially killing it. Teddy, in a very real sense, puts their lives in danger. This, along with so many more violent and abrasive shenanigans, makes the cheery ending seem forced and very, very unlikely.
I imagine many will wonder why this matters in a comedy-as long as you’re laughing, who cares-but there’s more to it than that. “Neighbors” does indeed have some legitimate laughs. Rogen is just as funny as ever, despite a considerable lack of help from Rose Byrne, who just doesn’t have the comedic chops to pull off rolls like this, and Efron plays his character well. The problem is that his character, along with Rogen’s, is cruel, leading to unlikable situations and making many of those potential laughs moot.
If what I’ve written sounds to you like a curmudgeon stupidly complaining about morality in a silly movie that shouldn’t be taken seriously, then you’ll likely enjoy “Neighbors,” and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it rubbed me the wrong way. I’d love to see a movie with these two paired up again, one that doesn’t rely on cruelty to garner laughs, but if one must go in that direction, there’s a fine line between a mean spirit and a silly one. Sadly, “Neighbors” leans a tad too far to the former.