Neighbors (2014)

Neighbors-Movie-TrailerDirected by Nicholas Stoller. Written by Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O’Brien. Produced by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, James Weaver. Music by Michael Andrews. Photographed by Brandon Trost. Edited by Zene Baker. Production designed by Julie Berghoff. Starring Seth Rogen (Mac Radner), Zac Efron (Teddy Sanders), Rose Byrne (Kelly Radner), Dave Franco (Pete), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Scoonie), Ike Barinholtz (Jimmy), Carla Gallo (Paula).

One of the pleasures of the movies is that it allows us to watch actors change. They test themselves, they evolve, or they just plain get older and fit more comfortably into ensembles.  In Neighbors, Seth Rogen plays a new dad who starts a war with the frat house that moves in next door, which is shocking because it feels like only yesterday Rogen was at an age where he would play the college student, not a parent. Instead, the frat boys are led by Zac Efron, who seems like he should still be a little kid, although in actuality he is 26, and older than most (not all) frat brothers. So it goes.

To be fair, Mac Radner (Rogen) and his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne) don’t want to be thought of as old, either. When a frat moves in next door the couple warily introduce themselves to the impressively chiseled alpha male Teddy (Efron) and his sidekick, Pete (Dave Franco). They offer a bit of free pot, attempt to be cool, and try to be as polite as possible.  But they also don’t set solid boundaries, partying with them all night and then trying to ease back into responsibility the next evening; weighing the need to be either liked or respected, they end up miscalculating on both. Eventually the two camps become enemies, leading to an escalating series of raunchy, brutal pranks.

That’s the premise of this hybrid of campus and suburban comedy, which views both sides of the conflict even-handedly. For Mac and Kelly, their new neighbors are a constant reminder of the party-hard, zero-responsibility lives they had to give up by settling down. An early sequence has them getting ready for a night out with the baby, and the preparations bog them down into exhaustion before they even get out the door. For Teddy and company, the Radners represent the scary future, and although Pete has the wisdom to see beyond college, Teddy lives in the now. Like the heroes of Animal House, campus life is all he has and he clings to it fiercely. This adds a surprising amount of heart, even to an ending with involves Rogen and Efron battling with…well, let’s not go there.

This is a frequently funny (and very dirty) comedy, although not necessarily a great one. It’s not wall-to-wall hilarious moments, but it’s never far from one. Some sequences are misfires (a comic breastfeeding scene with Byrne is memorable for all the wrong reasons), some of the riffing goes on too long within scenes and kills momentum, and other moments are tasteless but redeemed by perfectly delivered punchlines, such as a visit to the ER where the couple meets an unhelpful doctor (Jason Mantzoukas) whose single line gets one of the film’s biggest laughs. There’s a lot of stuff that’s really great: Byrne and Rogen’s strategizing on how to destroy a frat party from the inside, Efron narrating a history of fraternity milestones, lots of jokes playing off of Efron’s impressive physique (and Rogen’s…not-so-impressive physique), plus two scenes stolen by the inimitable Lisa Kudrow as the college dean. There’s also priceless one-liners, my favorite being Pete’s angry protest at Teddy giving him the brush-off (“Why does everyone keep forgetting I’m a psychology minor?”)

The Rogen school of comedies have typically been heartfelt, but here it’s interesting to see him now taking dad roles, nostalgic for the past or no. He and Byrne make a splendid team, with the latter flexing her comic muscles with zeal (and using her native Australian accent in a movie, for once), although Stoller seems unwilling to always recognize her for the MVP that she is–I guarantee there’s a lot of really funny Byrne improv on the cutting room floor. Franco, for his part, nails the feeling of a college kid who’s a bit brighter than his friend circle, and worries that he’s slowly outgrowing them.

The real surprise, though, is Zac Efron: formerly a Disney channel star, he now graduates to basically being considered a legitimate actor, using a lot of craft and tight control to make Teddy into a very very specific bro. We feel kinda sorry for Teddy when all is said and done, and that adds poignancy on top the laughs (which are often huge). The director, Nicholas Stoller, previously made Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five-Year Engagement, so he’s an old hand at making comedies that actually deliver a bit more than you expect. He also co-wrote Muppets Most Wanted, so, yes, he’s having a very eclectic year so far.

A word of warning: Neighbors is a very ribald comedy, with nothing left sacred. But if you’re willing to buy into that, it’s also a very likable one. Probably because they’re such nice kids. Yes, even the adults. B+

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