Can one truly be self-deprecating if willingness to make fun of oneself is one’s armor and source of pride? Experts refer to this as the Seth Rogen Paradox; it afflicts Neighbors like scoliosis. Being average isn’t just his shtick, it is his vanity; but he’s like the hipsters of yesteryear for whom trucker caps signified “ordinary.” He won’t even stay on the screen; he’s next to you in the theater, pointing out the not-so-obscure references despite the dirty looks. Somehow, he makes this double-secret-reverse jiu-jitsu work for him, in sort-of the way that Republicans get the poor to protect the rich: That could be you up there, Mr. Swollen Stoner in the Beanbag Chair. He’s the Buddha-bellied Everydude: totally “natural” but totally formed by pop culture: down for everything but above engaging with anything out of sheer ignorance that anything could be engaged with. Rogen is not pretentious or phony or unlikable or cynical, but for all his bulk he’s weightless; it’s like he’s in the theater because he seems to react to all experiences as if they were images on a screen. He represents, in attitude and physique, all of us greasy-fingered latchkey kids who felt superior to what we were watching and yet suspected, albeit doofily, that perpetual, passive viewership was a prediabetic Shangri-La—heaven on every channel. Rogen is glamorously irresponsible. Scratch that: post-responsible. Movie-star looks would handicap him because then he couldn’t say “How did a goober like me end up in a paradise like this?” He doesn’t know the answer; all he knows is that it makes him awesome.
Self-consciously or not, Rogen is the poster child for indefinite adolescence and that’s a big blank check of hip. If cool is currency, this clump of gentrifried dough is rolling in it. And I think cool is the new currency because, like potential, it cannot be audited. Cool is what advertisers appeal to in consumers these days: our sense of being in touch with “the culture,” of catching its references—of contributing to it. It’s the fusion cuisine of communal and narcissistic, of democratic and élite. The “other” (in the ideal, one-world-order of advertising, not I.R.L.) doesn’t belong to a different race, class, gender, sexual preference, ideology, or creed anymore—that ain’t P.C., and, ipso facto, profitable. The other is the one who doesn’t get it. (By the way, I’ll toss age onto the heap of identity-politics labels. Baby boomers—a.k.a. my parents—were the test case for this Peter Panhandling, this socially diffused fiat to never grow old—a.k.a. uncool—and now they’re taking selfies in retirement.) I don’t think this mentality is all bunk, even if it’s skeezy any time someone sells his own products as the antidote for a condition he has made you think you have. But it’s bad for observational humor: a redoubt for smart, self-conscious flakes—like Rogen.
In Neighbors, Rogen plays a recent father and homeowner whose loafers help him forget that he’s wearing a tie. His wife, Rose Byrne, doesn’t even get a generic workplace; it isn’t made clear whether she’s a homemaker or on maternity leave: a red flag for feminist critics and a showpiece missed opportunity, to boot. It wouldn’t seem such a missed opportunity if the movie didn’t start off as savvy about new parenthood as it does. Stella, the product of their coitus, is now its interruptus; they can’t reach climax with her bright eyes looking on, and they try to lug her out clubbing with their childless friend only to pass out from the strain of getting all her ducks (and diapers) in a row. When a frat house moves in next door, they try to get the brothers to keep their rager quiet without seeming lame, but, baby monitor in holster, they join the party instead; the fountain of youth they’ve been craving is kept in the kegs. Rogen even bonds with the fraternity president, Teddy (Zac Efron), who prefers carousing with these geezers to having them kill his buzz. But buzz they kill when the cops they call, and Hannibal Buress shows up in uniform, the spitting image of the college-town pensioner. The gist of it is that there’s a rivalry between frat house and suburban domicile. The not-so-subtext is that the parents don’t want to live next door to this symbol of their senescence and Teddy doesn’t want to face the prospect of growing up. In it are the makings of a FOMO opus.