The messages that films evoke say a great deal about the current state of our society. In recent years summer films have highlighted fantasy and riveting special effects that enable audiences to escape--for two hours or so--the routine humdrum of daily life during the "school free" months. Although summer blockbuster films are sometimes engrossing, I am more often drawn to "little" summer films that underscore our joys and fears. One such film is the recently released, Neighbors, by director Nicholas Stoller. The reviews of Neighbors have been mostly positive. Here are a few of them.
Joe Williams of The St Louis Post Dispatch says:
"It's a party where we want to stay, until we're dragged out kicking and screaming."
Richard Roeper of The Chicago Sun Times says:
"About 40 percent of Neighbors falls flat. About 60 percent made me laugh hard, even when I knew I should have known better."
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone says:
"You expect hardcore hilarity from Neighbors, and you get it. It's the nuance that sneaks up on you."
Nick LaSalle of The San Francisco Chronicle says:
"Neighbors is funny for all 96 of its minutes, not counting the credits, and it contains the single best sight gag of the year so far. (We're talking laugh-out-loud funny and then laugh again later, just thinking about it)."
Given the fact that I liked Stoller's Forgetting Sarah Marshall and that the director is a non-relative who shares my not so common last name, how could I pass up a chance to see his new film?
So I went to see Neighbors. The premise of film plays upon a fundamental fear of middle class social life in America--the concern that the peacefulness of your wonderful home might be transformed by new neighbors who move in next door or across the street. The scenario can play out in many ways. You can buy or rent a house or apartment only to discover that a neighbor is noisy, strange, or worse yet, slovenly and destructive. If you are wonderfully settled in and really like your house, the appearance of a For Rent or a For Sale sign can be stressful. The old neighbors were lovely people. Will the new neighbors be the kind of people who'll destroy your peace and tranquility?
Enter Stoller's Neighbors in which the Radners (Seth Rogin and Rose Byrne) have had a baby and have moved into a quiet bungalow in a college town. All is wonderfully tranquil until the house next door is sold to the college's most party prone fraternity, the brothers of which are hoping to make fraternity history through epic over-the-top celebrations of loud music, binge drinking and inebriated antics. Mac and Kelly Radner are concerned about how the noise might impact the well-being of their newborn infant. But all is not clear cut. Despite their status as young parents, they also don't want to be perceived as "squares" who are compelled to tell the young hellions to "keep it down." They want to believe that they can still party, that they've "still got it." They decide to strike a bargain of peaceful co-existence with Zack Efron, the sexy super frat boy who is destined to set a world record for partying. If the noise becomes too disturbing, the Radners pledge to work things out informally. They promise that they won't to call the cops. Even so, the noise soon forces them to complain to the police about their noisy neighbors. Once the agreement has been betrayed all hell breaks loose--plots and counter-plots, one gag after another to "fix" with the situation.
Throughout the film the viewer is treated a series of disconnected scenes of binge drinking and drugging, dirty dancing and mechanical sex, gross males interacting with clueless females not to forget the machinations of a cynical Dean of Students (Lisa Kudrow). Most of the actors, including the Radner's newborn child, come off more like props than people. In fact, none of the characters in this comedy seem to have any depth, nuance, or redeeming traits. Like the classic feature, Animal House, Neighbors is a film that reinforces the widespread conception that college time is party time, a place in which going to class is an uncool waste of time.
Perhaps the gags in Neighbors are all in good fun. There are some rather funny lines and some amusingly crude jokes. But as a college professor and anthropologist I can't shake the troubling notion that Stoller has crafted a film that is willfully ignorant of how life is lived in college communities. There are, of course, town and gown conflicts, and groups of students do sometimes binge drink and make a great deal of noise. And yes, the "adults" in college towns sometimes call the cops on their noisy neighbors. And yes, college is a rite of passage in the American imaginary, which, for some of us, constitutes the peak of our life experiences-something we'd like to re-visit in our fantasies.
Perhaps the critical acclaim for Neighbors is in appreciation of its crude escapism and its celebration of male fantasy. Watching it we forget about the profound struggle of everyday life in an economically and environmentally compromised society. We forget the difficulties of "growing up," or the challenge of raising a family. We forget that the vast majority of college students come from families of modest means, who, because they work one or two jobs, don't have time to hang out at a legendary party or to plot "pay back" for thh adults who called the cops.
When a film like Neighbors receives widespread critical acclaim, I wonder about our standards of judgment and the quality of our cultural expression. I worry that the film's messages will reinforce misinformed social stereotypes that tend to increase the social and cultural divide in America, a divide that usually increases our fears of "the other."
Despite these considerable shortcomings, could Nicholas Stoller be reminding of us of our fundamental fantasies, deep alienation and profound fear? How many of us, after all, would risk calling the cops on our noisy neighbors?