Like many other recent comedies, Neighbors takes a classic formula and invigorates it with modern anxiety. It seems like every major life transition, whether it’s graduating from college or starting a family, is fraught with the concern that an embrace of the future must come with the destruction of the past. Director Nicholas Stoller taps into that universal feeling through two groups in conflict, and peppers it with an escalation of one-liners and physical gags. This is gross-out comedy at its finest, one that grows out of character and not plot. It also helps that the performances are much better than they need to be.
Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are new parents who just sank all their money into a new house. They’re still in denial about what parenthood implies: when a friend implores them to come out partying, they believe they can throw down with a newborn in tow. The dread of a boring suburban life heightens once they see a fraternity moving into the house next door (the script by Brendan O’Brien and Andrew J. Cohen wisely glosses over how the frat owns the house, or why any owners would rent to them).
At first, there is an awkward alliance between the houses: Mac befriends fraternity president Teddy (Zac Efron), whose chief goal is to throw legendary parties. But then the loud music will not stop, Mac calls the cops, and Teddy views the “betrayal” as the opening salvo of the war. Left with no other alternative – they cannot afford to sell – Mac and Kelly try to destroy the fraternity from the inside.
Mac and Kelly’s attempts at sabotage, some more successful than others, create absurd opportunities for the fraternity to revel in transgressive glory. Stoller gets the laugh by playing up certain clichés and subverting others: Teddy demands commitment from his frat brothers, but is empathetic he sees weakness in one of them. His co-president Pete (Dave Franco) has a unique sexual talent that impresses his fellow bros, yet he’s a good student who wants to become an architect.
Still, the funniest sequence is when Kelly uses her wisdom against the frat. Byrne plays her as a shrewd student of hook-up culture, one who understands the innate horniness of co-eds is the quickest way to them to act against their own interests. It’s a terrific comic performance, one that strikes a balance between reformed youth and paternal instincts (there’s a regrettable gross-out sequence involving Kelly’s engorged breasts, but at least it leads to some clever dialogue from her and Rogen).
The bigger surprise, however, is Efron’s performance as Teddy. He plays the frat president as a true believer, the kind of zealot who could lead an army into oblivion. Efron understands this kind of devotion requires a little madness – maybe more than a little – and he gleefully pushes his character into villain territory when it’s necessary. In a few years, there’s no reason Efron could not play a super-villain or a serial killer because he conveys insanity so well. That is not to say, however, that Teddy is a one-dimensional caricature. There’s a hidden reason for his commitment to partying; in fact, the script finds flaws/lessons for all the major characters. Stoller and his cast hit dramatic notes amidst multiple dildo jokes, which shows this is a comedy that also has a message (albeit a slight one).
It’s weird to think that when my mom was my age, she was pregnant with me. It’s weird because even though I’m an adult in some ways, I’m also still the immature idiot who laughs at dick jokes and drinks too much on a school night. Getting older comes with wearing multiple hats, I suppose, and Neighbors is about how that sometimes can be too much for everyone, whether they’re a frat president or a new parent who still smokes pot. Stoller and his screenwriters may maintain a relentless pace, yet this is the sort of comedy that’s based on an understanding of human nature, and it’s gentle enough as to not condemn its characters.