One part smart, one part stupid and three parts jokes about body parts, the extremely raunchy Neighbors is a strange success story. It’s nobody’s idea of a well-structured and logically detailed screenplay, even though its premise—new parents battling frat-house neighbors—springs from a high-concept idea that could’ve come from scriptwriting software or a research facility. Which brings us to one of the movie’s better early jokes: Sizing up the perpetually shirtless kegmeister played by Zac Efron, Seth Rogen wonders if his adversary was “designed in a laboratory.”
Efron’s multidirectional appeal, his boy-toy-ness, takes on a darker hue in Neighbors. This is familiar tit-for-tat material, predating even the days when Laurel & Hardy went to war against James Finlayson. Parental newbies Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are besotted with their infant daughter, and getting used to home ownership, sleep deprivation and the frustrations of a curtailed sex life. Then the new neighbors move in: a fraternity known for its “legendary ragers.” Efron plays the alpha male fraternity president, Teddy, with the determined glare of a sociopathic boy-man, nervous about life after college.
Directed by Nicholas Stoller, Neighbors sets up a series of conflicts and vows of revenge as the suburban couple goes head-to-head with the bong-addled, beer-sloshing pledges next door. Dave “The Other Franco” Franco portrays Teddy’s loyal best friend; Christopher Mintz-Plasse is Scoonie, the party boy with something extra. The script by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien is extremely spotty, going for one too many gags built on the gag reflex rather than the gag. Used condoms, curious infants, lactating mothers in pain and plaster-cast genitalia lead the list, and it’s a looooong list.
But Stoller, whose work I like—Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek were both funny and a little bit insightful—has a knack for delivering commercial comedy with some interesting detours and semi-improvised flourishes. Early on, when Mac and Kelly rehearse the way they plan to tell their neighbors to keep the noise down, a simple exchange builds and expands in ridiculous and clever ways.
Efron has one major disadvantage. He’s not a witty performer. When Teddy becomes more and more destructive in his attempts to get Mac and company to back down, the character transforms into a creep, and Efron’s strategy is to play the meanness for real. Mistake. There’s a touch of Pineapple Express, another Rogen project, to this film’s violent action climax. And yet the good jokes, some dirty, some cleaner, keep sneaking in there.
Whether getting drunk and/or high with their neighbors, or embarking on another stealth mission aided by their divorced pals (Ike Barinholtz and Carla Gallo), Rogen and Byrne prove to be excellent scene partners. The fledgling family unit at the heart of Neighbors is sunny insecurity incarnate. Mac and Kelly aren’t ready to let go of their adolescent excesses, but they’re not sure what it means to have this new person in the house. That’s one movie; the other movie is the frat-party bacchanal that never quits. Somehow the struggle and tension between the two movies works. Throughout Stoller’s comedy you can’t help but think: Wait, where’s their kid? Who’s watching the kid? Then again, no one in Neighbors claims these two sleep-deprived basket cases know what they’re doing.
Neighbors (R): ★★★☆☆