The Party-Animal Party

by Armond White
Neighbors drives the youth movie into ditch; Palo Alto digs it out.

There’s a problem with Hollywood’s pandering to youth: It doesn’t stop with youth. The married adults of the new comedy Neighbors belong to a familiar hedonistic tradition — call it the Party-Animal Party — established by those who take America’s pursuit of happiness to idiotic, embarrassing extremes. This party’s platform can be traced back to Animal House, the 1978 National Lampoonbranded comedy that changed more than American movie humor — it changed attitudes.

Kids always knew crude, obnoxious behavior can sometimes be funny, but Animal House made frathouse antics acceptable to moviegoing adults. The toga-wearing slobs of Animal House eventually led to the New Millennial rogues in Wedding Crashers, the Hangover series, and Bridesmaids, which gave women equal-time vulgarity.

How did movies get to this loutish state? Neighbors’ formulaic premise makes one demand an answer, and the answer lies in Neighbors’ failure. The conflict between homeowners Mac and Kelly Radner (Knocked Up’s Seth Rogen and Bridesmaids’ Rose Byrne) and the Delta Psi Beta fraternity headed by Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) never gets satisfyingly resolved. The Radners, alarmed by their new next-door residents’ constant carousing, secretly harbor party-animal desires. Nothing indicates that they have matured. Their temptation and inconsistent behavioral clash could reveal something about spiritual emptiness, but the filmmakers, like pandering politicians, turn Neighbors into Animal House. When the Deltas honor their alumni, flashbacks emulate the gonzo style of John Belushi’s, er, uh, “legendary” zit joke. Bratty behavior spreads from the frat boys to the adults like a contagion.

Here are the symptoms: At first Mac and Kelly try appeasing the frat brothers, skittishly envying their youthful abandon but also scared by it. Then they compete in senseless, largely improvised pranks that parallel the contemporary history of movie comedy — in decline.

After Animal House’s success, a 1981 film also titled Neighbors adapted novelist Thomas Berger’s cautionary bestseller about covetous suburbanites (in an effort at turning John Belushi into a figure of comedic gravity). It flopped because it strayed from Animal House chaos. Today’s Neighbors recklessly dismisses the cultural and political issues — the self-awareness — that Berger satirized. Mac is the sad sack that the middle class fears itself to be, and sexy Teddy epitomizes the younger generation it resents. Moviegoers who accept this oversimplified generation gap merely choose to be flattered by their preferred sense of immorality. Neighbors reaches an ugly, cynical low point when housewife Kelly plots to ruin Teddy’s closest friendship by manipulating a seduction of his girlfriend while doofus Mac defends his wife’s strategy in a knockdown, drag-out melee.

Going from maturity to immaturity comes via Judd Apatow, Hollywood’s current comic guru, who made Rogen a movie star in 2007’s Knocked Up as an oafish boy-man stumbling into bourgeois fatherhood. Neighbors joins Apatow’s middle-class comfort to Animal House’s rules-flouting mischief. If this is the way Americans live today, it represents a desperate, foolish cultural sea change. Apatow’s crude permissiveness (and penchant for penis jokes) in films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Funny People, and This Is 40 derives from the gross license and licentiousness of Animal House, but then, like college trust-fundees, he falls back on bourgeois satisfactions. It’s the hypocrisy of the Party-Animal Party. Mac, Kelly, and Teddy’s shenanigans update the crudeness that Animal House bequeathed, and that Apatow and producer-star Rogen show off without self-examination.

Combining married-couple smut and frat-boy lewdness, Neighbors zigzags without any satirical point. Last year, Rogen co-directed This Is the End, a shaggy, nearly classic comic jamboree, tying apocalyptic fears to Hollywood narcissism. It was wildly uneven but often punchy. Neighbors is just uneven and tiresome. Playing two sides of middle-class privilege against each other, it reveals the obnoxious underside of Animal House: It is a comedy of boorish entitlement (perhaps a secret American impulse, as every Hollywood hack and scheming politician suspects).

Lisa Kudrow, that superb, post–Animal House comedienne, gets the film’s best joke as a college dean to whom a frat boy confesses that he’s stoned. Her response: “I’m the opposite of the kind of person you should say that to.” Neighbors is the opposite of sophisticated.

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It skips a generation, they sometimes say, which may explain why Palo Alto, the first film by Gia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter, is a more affecting portrait of troubled youth than anything directed by Sofia Coppola (Francis’s daughter, Gia’s over-praised aunt). At 27, Gia Coppola seems closer to her generation’s confusions and so conveys the spacey truth of their befuddlement, whereas Sofia’s movies (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Somewhere, The Bling Ring, and the abominable, ahistorical Marie Antoinette) were “personal” in the most self-indulgent way.

Sofia’s movies suited the era of indie-film narcissism, Gia’s Palo Alto (about several California high-school students trying to figure out their sexual and moral commitments) avoids class privilege. Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and Freddy (Nat Wolff) embark on manhood without adequate role models, just their own naïve instincts about what’s funny and what feels good or daring. Complementing this dilemma, Alice (Emma Roberts) and Emily (Zoe Levin) face the feminine crisis of self-acceptance through sex; Alice falls into an affair with her soccer coach, and Emily freely dispenses her favors, mostly in the new era’s oral equivalent to howdy-do.

Palo Alto gives a poignant view of what today’s youth cannot understand about trust, about authority figures, or within their own generation. They pine for each other yet are easily distracted. The boys show attitude and the girls display sensitivity; none get anywhere close to satisfaction. Their loss becomes society’s loss.

While Sofia stayed remote from moral consequences, Gia anticipates consequences that might occur: Teddy and Freddy ponder improving their status through time travel; Alice’s neediness subjects her to her coach’s manipulation; Emily’s desperation puts her in jeopardy with numerous boys. The scene where Freddy says  to Emily, “Tell me you love me,” updates that classic, scary scene in Splendor in the Grass of a boy holding down a girl in emotional blackmail; Freddy’s foolish, boyish pride redounds on Emily’s insecurity. Then Teddy, trying out “I love you” on Alice, surprises even himself. James Franco, who wrote the short-story collection the film is based on, plays the seducer-coach with practiced predatory moves; thankfully, Gia’s sensitivity allays any fear of callous exploitation.

In a Peanuts-like moment, Teddy faces juvenile detention while a judge’s declaration is spoken in voiceover by Francis Ford Coppola himself. Filmgoers might be reminded that his early-’80s teen melodramas The Outsiders and Rumblefish also found romantic and existential significance in class-based portrayals of adolescent angst. It’s taken a full generation for that sensitivity’s return — as if to rebuke the Party-Animal Party. Palo Alto shows consciousness of community — a sense of spiritual nationhood — that the inaptly titled Neighbors offends.

— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.