Neighbors, in which a married couple with a newborn child squares off against the rowdy band of fraternity brothers next door, might seem disingenuous in the wake of recent sexual assault scandals in the world of Greek life. But director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien assuage those concerns with a big-budget studio comedy that’s just a tad smarter than you’d expect, and considerably funnier.
The majority of the movie takes place on a single suburban street, in and around two adjacent homes. In one, Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) grapple with the trials and tribulations of raising a daughter, maintaining their relationship and staying sane. In the other, Delta Psi president Teddy (Efron) and his brothers aspire to earn a place on the fraternity’s coveted wall of history-making party antics. Naturally, these two goals can’t easily co-exist. Mac and Kelly initially, and haphazardly, attempt to win over the bros with their rusty youthful charm, but things turn sour once the couple realizes their baby is more important than some ‘shrooms and a carefully orchestrated “swordfight.”
Neighbors challenges the celebrity personalities of its stars more deftly than any movie in recent memory. Rogen, Byrne and Efron play characters who differ just enough from the roles in which they’re usually typecast that they have room to stretch their comedic muscles, but not so much that they’re pushed out of their comfort zones. Rogen’s Mac is schlubby and loves marijuana, but his manic immaturity is an uncharacteristically believable character flaw, a byproduct of his sincere desire to do right by his family without petering out into the obscurity of adulthood. Byrne, meanwhile, continues the hot streak she’s been on since Bridesmaids, frequently outpacing Rogen’s ratio of surprising, offbeat punchline deliveries.
And Efron is a thing to behold. In every role until now, he’s been the prettiest and least expressive actor in any given scene, and his personality has essentially boiled down to “dreamy eyes and chiseled facial features.” Here, he comes alive opposite Rogen and Byrne and even more in his solo scenes. He seems thrilled about the opportunity to self-deprecate and simultaneously flaunt his assets (perhaps less frequently than some members of the audience would like). The role is deeper than the generic frat brother, and Efron captures each facet of this alpha male with just a bit more than his usual vapidity. It’s not a great performance so much as great casting. Finally, he has a role that requires him to be only a bit more than himself.
A wild bunch of supporting characters fill out the ranks, complementing the stars without distracting from them. Of those, Jerrod Carmichael as the clueless Garf and Ike Barinholtz as the hapless Jimmy make the strongest impressions. (Elsewhere, Dave Franco’s blinding white teeth give the rest of the cast a run for its money.) Cohen and O’Brien’s savvy script is refreshingly light on the cliches of the genre. Kelly is as far from a nag as possible, for instance, and Teddy is neither the ruthless frat villain we expect nor the secret softie we dread.
The movie is ultimately about more than man’s right to party and parents’ right to sleep – it’s about confronting the reality of where you’re expected to be and how you’re expected to act at a given age. Mac and Kelly try very hard (entirely too hard) to “fit in,” almost like high school dweebs who want to get in with the cool kids, because they’re scared of the difficulties they’re facing in their adult lives. Teddy blows off his academic responsibilities and ignores the temporary nature of fraternity culture for similar reasons. Neighbors suggests that people can find clarity in their lives by accepting the position they’re in, not willing themselves back to what they were before.
Neighbors isn’t quite a classic – it’s a bit too long, a bit too flabby in the middle section, and a bit too tidy in the final minutes. But it delivers plentiful laughs, provokes occasional thought and exudes profane charm. And if that’s not enough, the baby is adorable.