Rated R for pervasive language, strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity and drug use throughout.
Running time: 96 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.
I have been both of the people at the center of the conflict in “Neighbors.” I have been the drunk sorority girl who doesn’t want the party to end and I have been the perplexed new mom who’s desperate for some sleep. There’s a great truism nestled amid the magic mushrooms and the mayhem which binds these characters, two people who seem so different at first. They long to cling to what they know, even as they recognize that it’s time to move on to the next natural step in life.
They way those universally relatable experiences play out is actually stronger than the revenge-fueled destruction that’s meant to serve as the chief source of comedy. Director Nicholas Stoller’s film too often feels episodic — it’s shaggy and meandering when it should be escalating in tone and tension. This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens. The young married couple does something cruel, and then the idiot frat guys next door respond, and back and forth it goes. I laughed, but not uproariously and not often enough.
Seth Rogen and Zac Efron’s faces are the ones you see on posters for “Neighbors” — their names are the ones that appear above the title — but it’s Rose Byrne who really steals the show. Screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien had the decency (and the smarts) to make the women as game as the men when it comes to drugs and dirty deeds. Byrne, as Rogen’s wife, shows the same strong presence and sharp comic instincts we saw in “Bridesmaids” and Stoller’s “Get Him to the Greek.” Her character also orchestrates the film’s finest sequence: a fluidly staged and edited series of manipulations involving shots and stolen kisses that’s downright Shakespearean.
But the vast majority of the film doesn’t operate with nearly that sort of clockwork precision. It hangs out, cracks open another beer and ponders what to do next.
Rogen and Byrne star as Mac and Kelly Radner, a young couple with an infant daughter enjoying the bliss of their new, suburban dream home. How they can afford it is one of many fundamental questions we shouldn’t bother to ask. He’s a cubicle dweller who sneaks joints during his lunch breaks; she’s a stay-at-home mom who’s starting to go mad from boredom. But things are good for the most part. They aim to be the cool parents who still have spontaneous sex on the floor in the middle of the day. They not only like each other but they actively enjoy being with each other; refreshingly for this sort of comedy, Kelly is far from the stereotypically nagging wife. She’s a fully realized person.
But everything changes the day the men of Delta Psi Beta move into the empty house next door. Their leader is the uber frat dude, Teddy, played by a frequently shirtless Efron (as if any other kind were possible). He takes the notions of brotherhood and bacchanalia entirely too seriously. He probably doesn’t realize “Animal House” and “Old School” weren’t documentaries. He has peaked.
At first, Mac and Kelly want desperately for Teddy, his second-in-command, Pete (Dave Franco), and the rest of the Delta Psi guys to like them. They want desperately to be a part of the party. But then they realize that the party goes on night after night after night, which means the baby isn’t sleeping — which means mom and dad aren’t sleeping, either. The couple’s attempts at sabotage come quickly and feel out of character. While some of the back-and-forth can be amusing, much of it revolves around facile dick jokes and garden-variety property damage. This is sub-Apatowian stuff in terms of both creativity and shock value.
Still, Efron is good here — it’s easy to underestimate him because he’s so damn handsome, but he’s made some inspired choices as he continues to distance himself from the wholesome “High School Musical” persona that made him famous. (Getting peed on by Nicole Kidman in Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy,” for example.) Efron gets to make fun of his image here as the muscular, preening fraternity president, but he finds the character’s pathetic, darker side, as well — his weird intensity and clingy immaturity.
Rogen also continues to show maturity and range — although certainly not to the extent of his strong dramatic work in Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz” or his supporting role in the deeply moving “50/50.” But 10 years ago, Rogen would have played the wild frat boy; now, as the schlubby husband and new dad, he still shows some glimmers of his trademark, comic anarchy.
If only the stakes were higher for all of these characters, it might even be possible to care about who wins.