Chuck Koplinski: Hit-or-miss 'Neighbors' only sporadically hilarious
There's an "almost, not quite" quality to Nicholas Stoller's "Neighbors," a ribald comedy that is at times uproariously effective but at others frustratingly tame.
Though it sports an intriguing premise — young married couple versus the frat boys who move in next door — there's still an air of the familiar to the film as we can't help but recall "Animal House," "Back to School" and "Old School," among others. To be sure, stories of rebellious youth taking on the establishment are far from new — go all the way back to the Marx Brothers' hilarious "Horse Feathers" if you like — but that's not to say nothing fresh can't be brought to the table. The screenplay by Andrew Cohen and Brendan O'Brien does contain some inspired moments of lunacy; however, the movie lacks the relentless comic pace necessary for a film like this to succeed.
Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) are doing what society dictates they do — they've gotten married, bought a house and had a child — and all seems to be going as planned. However, their lifestyle is soon disrupted when the Delta Psi Beta fraternity moves in next door, an affront to the adult regime they've adopted.
On the evening of their first night of residency, the first of many debauched parties is thrown. The Radners do their best to seem cool with this state of affairs by assuming a pseudo-hip attitude and attending this event, but they soon realize that their partying days are long past, and all they really want is a good night's sleep and quiet time with their daughter.
After the Radners find out that the frat needs just two more demerits to get evicted from campus, they start pulling off a series of pranks in order to get the boys next door in trouble. Some are successful, others not so much, but the comedic gold comes whenever the collegians strike back. Led by Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco), their idea of payback escalates from strewing garbage in the Radner's yard — which results in their young daughter finding a condom they fear has been used — to engaging in obscene topiary as well as recruiting a frat mole, which goes horribly wrong.
These moments are effective, as is a sequence involving a questionable fundraiser by the frat. However, there ends up being a bit too much lag time between the good gags, and as a result, the film has a fractured pace that's all wrong for a movie of this sort, which should barely let the audience catch its breath before attacking it again. The moments between Rogen and Byrne, who is miscast here, seem forced while two characters on the periphery — Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (Carla Gallo), who play key roles in the end — are treated as an afterthought, a waste of comic potential.
If there are any revelations here, they come from Efron. This role is a major departure for the "High School Musical" alum, and he relishes the idea of playing this reckless ne'er-do-well who's as afraid of life after college as he is of becoming like Mac. There's more to this actor than just a dazzling smile and a killer six-pack, and it's a shame the relationship between Teddy and Mac wasn't developed further or, for that matter, the obvious homoerotic tension that exists between him and Pete.
But that's the modus operandi of "Neighbors" as it mirrors its characters, content to barely get by rather than realize its true potential.
'Neighbors' (2-1/2 stars out of 4)
Cast: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Lisa Kudrow, Brian Huskey, Sage Halston, Carla Gallo, Ali Corbin and Craig Roberts.
Directed by Nicholas Stoller; produced by Evan Goldberg, James Weaver and Rogen; screenplay by Andrew Cohen and Brendan O'Brien.
A Universal Pictures release. 96 minutes. Rated R (pervasive language, strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity and drug use). At AMC Village Mall 6, Carmike 13, Harvest Moon Drive-in and Savoy 16.
Also new in theaters
Sincere "Lunchbox" a romantic's delight. (3-1/2 stars)
Sometimes, predictability can be a comfort when we go to the movies. Such is the case with "The Lunchbox," a delightful Indian import that, while it may fail to surprise us, never fails to delight the viewer with its romantic tale of two modern-day pen-pals who converse in a traditional, if unorthodox manner.
Though unabashedly romantic, this is not a movie made up of grand gestures or bold declarations, but rather quiet moments of introspection and sincere acts grounded in honest concern.
In Mumbai, a system known as dabbawala is used in which home-cooked meals are delivered by the thousands to office workers in the city's business district. This method is known for its efficiency, but a mistake occurs one day when Saajan (Irrfan Khan) is given the wrong lunch, a wonderful meal made by Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a neglected middle-aged wife who, through various means, is trying to rekindle a sense of passion with her husband. And while her culinary efforts have been mistakenly sidetracked, they do have an effect on Saajan, who is in need of something new in his life as the widower is about to retire after spending 35 years as a claims clerk.
Saajan and Ila begin to correspond via letters they leave in the lunch kit that's daily shuttled back and forth between them, and before you know it, their missives are the one thing each looks forward to every day. The honesty with which they approach one another is of the sort that can only be sustained through anonymity. While Ila expresses frustration and a bit of despair over her husband being oblivious of her, Saajan reveals a deep-seeded, sustained grief for his deceased wife which this reserved man would never tell to his closest friends or co-workers. Their open exchange is a balm for both as they unburden themselves without guilt of judgment, and you can sense the lifting of a weight off each.
While the casting is problematic — he's far too young for the part, and she's too beautiful for her dowdy role — we overlook these inconsistencies thanks to Khan and Kaur, who bring a delicacy to their roles that's refreshing. Quiet and reserved, it's a delight to see Saajan come out of his shell as Kahn's subtle glances and modulated movements convey so much. Watch how he conveys Saajan's anticipation for his daily lunch, and you'll see an expert film actor at work.
Kaur matches him step for step, expressing Ila's longing to be recognized in a palpable way. She's a flower desperately in need of the sun, and the way the actress searches for this light breaks your heart.
Credit director Ritesh Batra for sustaining a restrained tone throughout and for cleverly connecting the characters by showing them reacting to similar sounds, music and objects that are taking place or viewed by Sajaan and Ila simultaneously in the different locales where they happen to be.
It's this sort of clever touch and the empathy fostered for its characters that will have you smiling pleasantly throughout "The Lunchbox," an unexpectedly satisfying cinematic delight.
"Under the Skin" offers thinking-person's horror. (3 stars)
Based on the novel by Michael Faber, Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin," is the sort of horror film that aficionados of the genre would likely label as "slow" and "pointless." Without question, it's easy to see why such descriptors would be applied to this offbeat project, as the filmmaker is very deliberate in the way he executes the story, and there's a narrative repetition at play that flirts with tedium throughout.
No, this is the thinking person's horror movie, as it requires a great deal of observation and a bit of introspection before the theme Glazer patiently lays out is unlocked.
Playing a distinctly different femme fatale from her signature Black Widow role, Scarlett Johansson is Laura, an alien from another world. She takes on the guise of a solitary woman and cruises around Glasgow, Scotland, on the make for single men. Demurely asking for directions, she starts a conversation with the men who obviously have more than being a Good Samaritan on their minds, and if she finds out that they live alone, she invites them into her van. She takes them back to her place, which is more like a dank tunnel than an apartment, and after disrobing before them, lures these wayward visitors into a pit of black muck until they're completely submerged. This "worst-first-date-ever" scenario plays out again and again over the course of the movie.
Once this pattern is established, it becomes obvious that Glazer has something to say, but what exactly that might be is hard to pin down. Like Stanley Kubrick, the filmmaker is content to present multiple possibilities if not definite answers as to what the movie's theme might be. While there's little in the way of emoting where Laura is concerned, there is the suggestion that she's attempting to make some sort of connection with the odd species she's surrounded by. More than anything, this is a mediation on loneliness and alienation, and while Laura does assimilate some human qualities over time, she'll never to be able to make a true connection, forever emotionally alone.
What with the way Laura's victims perish, an abhorrence or fear of sex is a prevalent theme bolstered by Johansson's sexuality. Her appearance is of vital importance here, and it's no accident that Glazer places her against dark, static backgrounds throughout. Our eyes are meant to take her in, to be enticed by her, and as result, the film comments not just on the double-edged sword of female sexuality, but on Johansson's distinctive brand of beauty and the allure of movie stars in general.
In the end, "Under the Skin" proves to be a Rorschach test for filmgoers as it will tax the patience of some, who will lament over wasting 107 minutes of their life they'll never get back, while intriguing others who will turn it over and over in their minds, projecting their own meaning upon it though definitive answers to its central questions may prove unattainable.
Ultimately, this is Glazer's greatest trick, as he puts us in Laura's shoes, examining her purpose, much as she examined ours.
For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.