Neighbors is rated R for pervasive language, strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use throughout. Let’s start with the language. When I can watch prime-time detective shows in which heads explode but not a single cuss word is spoken, and they’re rated for families, I’ve come to the conclusion that our rating system might be prioritizing some of the wrong things. Neighbors can get away with its language because of its actors – comedy mainstay Seth Rogen, genre darling Rose Byrne, and former Disney wonderkid Zac Efron.
Efron runs a college fraternity that moves in next to a married couple (Rogen and Byrne) with a baby. Things quickly get out of hand as the two sides engage in a violent prank war that has no practical purpose except for giving us an excuse for a movie. Rogen is no Chevy Chase, however, who made these sorts of competing neighbor plots his bread-and-butter in the 80s.
The dialogue feels largely improvised, so it’s a surprise that the majority of the humor actually comes from Byrne, who’s typically much more at home in sci-fi and horror movies, as well as Efron, whose High School Musical days are long past. The problem with Rogen is that we’ve seen his act before, and it hasn’t evolved in any way since Knocked Up and Pineapple Express. If anything, it’s lost energy.
Now for the sexual content and graphic nudity. There’s a lot of it. Most of the jokes are obsessively sexual. That’s not a bad thing in the right hands, but Neighbors never figures out a reason it’s making these jokes beyond the fact it has Seth Rogen in it and they’re expected. A few of the bits work on the strength of some well-placed cameos, but some sequences – Rogen milking Byrne after he breaks her breast pump, or the two rushing to the hospital because their baby gums a prophylaxis left on their lawn – are so monumentally stupid I felt embarrassed for the actors.
You’ll notice I’m using their real names – the characters had names, but I’m not sure they’re ever mentioned after the 10-minute mark. More than any other movie I’ve seen recently, I kept thinking of them by the actors’ names – given how unlikeable the characters are, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
You see, Rogen and Byrne play tired parents. The first chance they get, they rocket off to the frat house so Rogen can get drunk and do mushrooms. See, he’s tired from working a job he cuts out on every afternoon to smoke pot. Selling his character as a non-functioning substance abuser and a real, caring family man just doesn’t work. But he’s not alone – Byrne tries to break up the frat by making Efron’s girlfriend sleep with his best friend. How does she do this? By getting the girlfriend drunk, even pouring liquor down her throat after the girl protests and tries to stop drinking. Then Byrne pressures her into having sex with the best friend.
I get that we’re not really supposed to take this stuff seriously. Seth Rogen’s using a dance-off to distract the rest of the house party while this is going on, after all, but there are a dozen other ways to achieve that plot point that don’t involve rape. The film never even stops to think this is rape; the girlfriend is just a plot point to break up the frat. If a comedy doesn’t consider pouring liquor down a woman’s throat to have sex with her even as she tells you to stop as forced and violative, that’s a silent endorsement to a lot of viewers on the parts of the writer, director, the popular Rogen, Disney-kid Efron, and wholesome Rose Byrne.
I was very ready to meet Neighbors halfway. Truth is, most of it is a decently successful comedy whose actors pull off some pretty bad jokes much better than they should. Unfortunately, that also means they end up pulling off hard drug use and rape, presenting both as free of consequence and without even recognizing that’s what they’ve done. Like I said at the beginning, though, there’s one thing I don’t have a problem with – the language. That’s a good thing, since I use some choice words to describe Neighbors outside of print.