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.
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.