By Armond White
Actors win prizes for reshaping their bodies when playing serial killers, prizefighters and martyrs to disease, so why can’t Zac Efron alter his body to play a sexy bad boy? In Neighbors, Efron portrays Teddy, leader of a frat house that moves next door to yuppie couple Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne) who panic and behave even more childishly. It starts very p.c. with the couple speculating about a gay couple moving next door (“That’s awesome!”) Then husband-father Mac watches Teddy unloading boxes and exclaims “HE Looks like something a gay guy designed in a laboratory.”
Zac Efron’s posing isn’t quite that epic but he’s awfully pretty. Frat boy Teddy surpasses the WASP stereotype parodied in Van Wilder to represent an enviable type taken to almost sci-fi perfectable/delectable extremes. Perhaps only the post-feminist, post-Stonewall era could permit a young Hollywood actor to display himself this way—fully consciousness of his effect on both men and women as admitted by Mac’s “laboratory” quip.
In the rude comedy that is Seth Rogen’s specialty, sex-appeal inspires open speculation. (Mac can’t take her eyes off him, causing Kelly to confirm, “That’s the most gorgeous guy I’ve ever seen.”) Neighbors is a weak social satire, afraid to examine the way that the aging middle-class covets the freedom of adolescence (and forgets to put away their own crazy youth).
In its careless, irresponsible fashion, the film is full of homoerotic teases. Mac and Teddy bond, after a house party, by crossing piss streams (“Wanna sword fight?”). Mac’s horny best friend claims ignorance about today’s “sex-text bubble” and the Grindr website. (“It’s mostly guys but I’m gonna find someone!”) After Teddy’s best pal (Dave Franco) betrays him and they reunite, there’s bromantic boasting, “I could hold on to your balls forever.” And they consolidate their friendship with rhyming boyish pledges: “Bert and Ernie, Squirt and Spermy.” Sometimes Rogen’s mentor, Judd Apatow, inspires the requisite Apatow dick quips—plaster casting, a girthy phallic necklace called “a choker” and a vaudevillian frat boy exchange: “Scotty put his dick in your mouth while you were asleep.” “Un unh, I wasn’t asleep!"
Less daring than the Jackass movies where the gang of daredevil boys’ boys flaunt their sexuality, Neighbors allows Efron to talk back to his previous image as a squeaky-clean Disney heartthrob in the High School Musical features (which were followed by several misfired Hollywood attempts to slot him into sit-coms and rom-dramas). Efron rehabilitates his career through personal flesh-peddling—every shirtless scene here is as self-conscious as anything Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Christian Bale, and Robert DeNiro have done. The apparent effort required to achieve Teddy’s dreamy, taut yet supple, physique obeys Oscar-bait protocol. Efron takes advantage of his 27-year-old’s metabolism to chisel himself into a ripped and manscaped specimen—but he plays a meanie and when his blue eyes sparkle, he’s not to be trusted.
Neighbors’s script isn’t good enough for Efron to reveal more—except maybe confirming low-life tabloid rumor—and a true movie star must overwhelm scandal. He should be companionable, too, like the late man’s man Paul Walker—or the great Steve Cochran who Efron most resembles (too bad there are no Raoul Walshes or Antonionis to make the best of Efron‘s gifts).
In last year’s Best Man Holiday, Morris Chestnut was equally fine—a fluid, sculpted ideal. But he appeared strictly for female hetero admiration (the male characters didn’t notice). We are meant to notice Zac posing; a shot of him in rose-colored jeans shows off his peachy rear in ways only gay indie films would dare. That fetching/embarrassing toilet shot from last spring’s The Awkward Moment threatened to follow Efron forever had more than a couple people seen that pitiful movie. Neighbors offers less embarrasing iconography: an improvised scene of shirtless, museum-quality Zac as an Abercrombie & Fitch door-greeter posing opposite pale, flabby Rogen. It’s a good-natured throwaway moment but not good enough to find the potential within Efron’s ambisexual prettiness. Not even an ex-Disney doll needs to be a bad boy.
Neighbors opens nationwide on Friday May 9.