Judge Kerry Birmingham is greatly disturbed by the thought of living next door to Matthew Modine.
Can't live with him. Can't evict him.
It's often said that drama is easy; comedy is hard. Judd Apatow seems to have made a go with of it with the small empire of profane comedies at his disposal, though even he has been known to obsessively record audience reactions at screenings and cut his movie accordingly. But that's Apatow, and that's with an endless arsenal of easy gross-out jokes to draw from, which means it's even harder for more light-hearted fare to hit its mark without becoming too cloying, clever, or bitchy. Add in some romance and you're in trouble. Into this uncertain genre can be added The Neighbor, a mild, pleasant, most certainly bland concoction of old-school "opposites attract" romance and tepid farce.
Facts of the Case
Jeff (Matthew Modine, Weeds) is a single father who just wants time to run his business and get a little painting done on the side. Standing in his way is ambitious businesswoman Christine (Michele Laroque), the new owner of his condo and occupant of the unit below his. She wants Jeff out of the building she can expand and remodel her unit in advance of her upcoming wedding to a like-minded businessman (Eureka's Ed Quinn). The rivalry between Jeff and Christine extends to threats and pranks before desperation drives Jeff to strike her a bargain: he'll move out if the bewildered Christine agrees to pretend to be his date to his ex-wife's wedding to his now-ex best friend.
It's unlikely that the words "…starring Matthew Modine" are going to get your blood pumping for any movie, let alone this barely-released indie romantic comedy. That's not entirely fair to Modine, a genial enough actor with at least one truly great movie under his belt (Full Metal Jacket, of course) and a list of bombs and blips (yes, the man deserves to be free of the shadow of Cutthroat Island, but I'm invoking it anyway). The fact is that at the very least he should be competing with Michael Keaton for Clueless Dad roles, but the problem with Modine is the problem with the movie as a whole: it's "genial enough," but without much of a motivating spark to light the whole thing up. Modine is not a marquee name, and this is not a marquee movie. The movie relies on sitcom contrivances to keep it afloat: Jeff and Christine's escalating level of harmless antagonism (see Christine…tap the bumper of Jeff's car! Oooh!), along with the basic outlandishness of their date arrangement and the series of misunderstandings that put them at odds to begin with, wouldn't be out of place as an episode of Three's Company. It's established early on that Christine doesn't drink alcohol, a sure sign that at a key moment Christine will drink and the results may not be pretty. The film is riddled with trite plot devices like this, aiming for cute and poignant but rarely rising past listless. From the minute sensitive, emotional, free-wheeling Jeff declares his undying hatred for practical, repressed Christine, there's never a doubt that Christine's insensitive, materialistic fiancée—the very definition of modern yuppie soullessness—is probably the wrong guy for her. It ruins nothing to say that these mismatched kids really are crazy about each other. It's pre-ordained by the gods of romantic comedy: opposites will attract, and, like fate, it's all pre-ordained. And like most stories where you know the ending, a bit boring.
Working in The Neighbor's favor are its leads. It's refreshing to see a romantic comedy with two middle-aged leads who seem at least physically appropriate to one another, as opposed to two twenty-somethings who can't seem to find a date despite being young and beautiful; buying Modine and Laroque as an architect and a real estate developer, respectively, isn't a difficult task: these seem like people who might actually exist, and not just refugees from whatever timely teen primetime soap happens to be fashionable. It's also nice to see situational humor rather than gross-out humor (save a gag involving Jeff's sweaty gym clothes), an approach that would have withered the film's delicate sensibilities.
That delicacy kills it. As love stories go, it is neither baroque nor profane, a simple story of people connecting unexpectedly in the modern city. Eddie O'Flaherty directed and co-wrote the script, and credit should be given for attempting to navigate such a thankless template as this. When there's no edge to speak of, everything else needs to be perfectly in tune to sell both the romance and the comedy, but The Neighbor never gets its mix right, limply setting up gags and following through later with workmanlike precision. Somewhere in the process of making sure all the expected beats were hit, someone forgot to include jokes, and the love story fares only a bit better. The Neighbor is quiet, deliberate, and not willing to make much of a fuss; great traits to have in an actual neighbor, not so much in a comedy.
The sole bonus feature is the trailer for this film and several other First Look releases. Sound and picture quality are unexpectedly solid and, like the movie, passable if unremarkable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This movie is truly "mediocre," in its mildest sense: not of poor quality or incompetently made, just adequate enough not to really deserve derision. In a lot of ways, The Neighbor is impossible to hate: bereft of irony and kept afloat by its general agreeability and passable craftsmanship, any criticism seems a bit mean-spirited and beside the point. There's nothing wrong with a sincere, straightforward love story with some clean-cut humor for a change. Cynicism doesn't really have a place in the inevitability of romance.
A vanilla romance with little to distinguish it beyond its own predictability, The Neighbor is precisely in the mold of a hundred other movies exactly like it, neither good nor bad, whose sole appeal may be in the comfort it provides viewers who want to see a relationship work out the way they think it should. If it's not already playing the Hallmark Channel, it would fit right in with that station's stable of measuredly effervescent movies.
Guilty of being unremarkable in any way. And my colleagues all wear identical black robes, so I know when things don't stand out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
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