Despite what the promotional material may have you believe, the central struggle in Neighbors, the gleefully deviant new comedy starring Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, and Zac Efron, is not about realizing it’s time to grow up.
Mac and Kelly Radner, the married couple played by Rogen and Byrne, are pretty clear on having arrived at unmistakable adulthood: They have a baby and have sunk their savings into a house on a sunny suburban street in the college town of Ardendale. Mac works in an office, though he still makes time to get high outside with his buddy Jimmy (The Mindy Project’s Ike Barinholtz), while Kelly takes little Stella to Mommy and Me classes, though she describes them in terms that do the film’s R rating proud.
Instead, the tarter lesson Mac and Kelly have to learn in Neighbors, which opens on Friday, is not so much that they’re grown up, but that they’re glad to be grown up and don’t actually miss the partying life they recently left behind. Arriving as hard-bodied reminders of what it’s like to be young, carefree, and constantly wasted are the members of the Delta Psi fraternity, who, to the Radners’ dread (they were hoping for a gay couple), move in next door under the leadership of President Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron).
Mac and Kelly are so eager to prove they’re not the typical straitlaced suburban parents that they gift their new neighbors with a joint during their first fawning visit to request they keep the noise down. Later, they end up getting drawn into debauchery that involves magic mushrooms, some uproarious cross-generational Batman impressions, and staying up until dawn while keeping one ear on the baby monitor. It’s like having a party that never ends right next door.
But the novelty of that only charms the Radners for about a day, until it’s 4 in the morning the next night, the music’s blaring, and Teddy isn’t answering their calls. At that point, they turn to the cops, and from then on, it’s war.
Neighbors is directed by Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five-Year Engagement) and written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien (the minds behind IFC’s upcoming series American Storage with Rob Huebel). But if there’s a particular filmography to which Neighbors feels like it most belongs, it’s Rogen’s. The actor has been guiding cuddly man-children in slow steps toward responsibility and empathy since his Freaks and Geeks days, and Mac’s a natural continuation of Rogen’s path in Knocked Up, committed to his new life but still looking longingly back at his old one. He’s funny, but he’s familiar.
Byrne and Efron, however, are trying something new here.
Byrne, who’s more often seen in dramatic fare or playing the straight woman, is Neighbors’ biggest and most pleasant surprise. As Kelly, who’s as restless and nostalgic for pre-baby life as her husband, she acts in her native Australian accent for a change. And Kelly is just as eager as her husband is to take part in the escalating battle with the frat as it grows to involve dildos, littered condoms, surveillance camera glasses, and arranged infidelity. Thanks to her, the film gets a baby-related gross-out sequence that rivals anything that goes on at the frat house, and that’s a hilarious acknowledgment of the basic weirdnesses of biology.
But credit also goes to the script, which contains a meta-acknowledgment of how often women in comedies like these are left being the voice of reason. “Haven’t you ever seen a Kevin James movie?” Mac demands when asking why his wife hasn’t nagged him into better behavior. “I’m allowed to be the irresponsible one!” she yells back. But when everyone wants to be the Kevin James and not the killjoy, there’s no one to stop events from building out of control.
Like Byrne, Efron’s also playing against type, though as part of an ongoing and more calculated process of reinvention in which he’s transformed from teen heartthrob to dewy-eyed romantic lead to uber-bro. Frequently shirtless and an apparent douchebag prodigy, Teddy’s a better symbol than a flesh-and-blood-and-zero-body-fat character, and the film’s weaker moments involve its attempts to show his fears about the future, in contrast with the better prospects of his second-in-command Pete (Dave Franco). But as a guy who’s hit an early but intense peak and is living it up for all its worth, Efron’s impressively game about using his could-be-a-CGI-character looks for laughs, becoming a fitting foil for Rogen’s more slovenly, geekier breed of former college party dude.
Neighbors keeps the jokes flying too fast to give it much thought until after the credits roll, but what makes Efron work in the role is how unlike the usual community of Judd Apatow–adjacent funny people he is. Like Megan Fox in This Is 40, Efron is able to occupy a different, somewhat magical plane in Neighbors that’s afforded to the very attractive, at which the other characters gaze with flabbergasted admiration. (“He looks like something a gay guy designed in a laboratory!” Mac observes when first seeing Teddy.) It’s an entertainingly benign treatment of the advantages of looks without the usual villainous or resentful edge. Teddy may be the antagonist, but there’s no hating him because he’s beautiful — though some might be justified, due to his inability to keep Robert De Niro and Al Pacino straight.