Raunchy Comedy ‘Neighbors’ Set to Catapult Director Nick Stoller Into Hollywood’s Elite Club

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Another member of the Apatow school is ready for his blockbuster moment

Nick Stoller is one of the last people you would expect to direct the summer’s raunchiest comedy. An unassuming Harvard graduate, he met his wife in a playwriting workshop and blames a brief experiment with facial hair for delaying their inevitable romance. (He’s been clean-shaven ever since).

His most successful movie so far has been the squeaky clean “The Muppets,” which he co-wrote, but now he’s poised to join the Hollywood firmament with “Neighbors,” a ribald movie with scenes devoted to breast milk, dildos and mushroom trips.

Experts project the movie will gross at least $35 million its opening weekend — double the biggest opening of his career (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”)

Also read: ‘Neighbors’ Review: Seth Rogen’s Suburbanites vs. Frat Boys Comedy Is an Instant Classic

Stoller, described by collaborators as kind, smart and a little socially awkward, made a determined choice to break from his old ways with “Neighbors”: He used a different editor and director of photography, shuffling up a team that has been successful.

“He seemed to make a conscious effort to hold onto nothing he’d done in his other movies,” producer-star Seth Rogen told TheWrap at South by Southwest, where the movie premiered in March. “He almost approached this as though it were his first movie.”

Both “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to the Greek” were riotous comedies, and Stoller again fostered a collaborative, improvisational shoot to empower stars like Rogen, Rose Byrne, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Ike Barinholtz.

“He did jokes he’d normally be very uncomfortable with,” Rogen said. “He’s a waspy dude. It’s impressive to see he was deliberately trying to make something different from other stuff he’s done, and I love the other stuff he’s done.”

Also read: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg on How Hollywood Almost Killed Its ‘First R-Rated CG Comedy’

The writer-director’s star has been rising for more than a decade thanks to movies like “The Muppets” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” His last movie, “The Five-Year Engagement,” tackled marriage. But Stoller was not done making more personal movies, or movies about people who struggle with change.

“The two times I had nervous breakdowns in my life were when I graduated from college and had my first kid,” Stoller told TheWrap. “Neighbors” tackles both.

The story of young parents and their fight with a fraternity that moves in next door, it melds tawdry jokes with commentary on immaturity, gender stereotypes and machismo.

TheWrap’s Inkoo Kang labeled the film an instant classic, praising its portrayal of women and reinvention of the traditional studio comedy. As Kang notes, Stoller and the movie’s writers reinvent a genre that has become “dreadfully formulaic and subtly (or not-so-subtly) sexist” by acknowledging those genres and subverting them.

Rose Byrne, who plays Rogen’s spouse, refuses to be the nagging wife typical of so many recent comedies.

“There are still movies where females are just there to be cool or they are there to lambaste their husbands and scold,” Stoller said. “But female comedy characters are changing for the better.”

Stoller has had a hand in that, empowering Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” as well as Byrne in “Get Him to the Greek.”

Also read: ‘Neighbors’ Poised to Shock ‘Amazing Spider-Man 2′ at Box Office

He has a knack for making actors of all genders feel comfortable, but he has a sensibility for female comedians that is rare in the cult of male comedy writers — a skill he shares with Judd Apatow. Like so many successful comedians and writers these days, the former advertising executive got his break in the Apatow school of comedy.

He wrote three episodes of “Undeclared,” Apatow’s short-lived Fox show that helped incubate talent such as Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel. Rogen, one of the shows leads, stars in “Neighbors” as a man struggling with middle age, fatherhood and suburbia.

“Judd’s best talent is finding talent,” Evan Goldberg, who produced “Neighbors,” told TheWrap. “He always knows who really has it, and he collected all those people.”

Also read: Zac Efron Shops Dildos in ‘Neighbors,’ Proving Once Again He’s Far More Than a Disney Star

Apatow and Stoller co-wrote “Fun with Dick and Jane,” and it was Apatow’s blessing that landed Stoller his first directing gig, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Stoller offered to help Jason Segel write the movie if Apatow supported him as a director.

Having just delivered two hits in a row (“The 40-Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up”), Apatow had little problem convincing Universal to take a chance on Stoller. The $30 million movie grossed more than $100 million at the box office, and aided the careers of a half dozen comedic actors, including Kristen Bell, Russell Brand, Jonah Hill, Mila Kunis and Segel.

It also spawned a spin-off, “Get Him to the Greek,” which is every bit as bawdy as “Neighbors.” Segel and Stoller would go on to work together on several projects, including “Get Him to the Greek,” Stoller’s semi-sequel to “Sarah Marshall,” “Gulliver’s Travels” and “The Muppets.”

While both “Muppets” and “Marshall” crossed $100 million worldwide, “Neighbors” has a chance to best both of those movies, eliciting repeat views  like recent raunchy comedies “Wedding Crashers,” “The 40-Year Old Virgin” and “Bridesmaids.”

“It’s been a while since we’ve had a great comedy and ‘Neighbors’ is really funny,” said Exhibitor Relations vice-president and senior analysts Jeff Bock. “I think it’s going to play more broadly, to older people and with women, than people might expect.”

Watch TheWrap’s inteview with Stoller: