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 Lampoon–branded 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.