“Neighbors” is the best comedy I’ve seen since last year’s “This is the End.” Seth Rogen appears to be providing Hollywood with its best comedic material, and even amongst a plethora of gross-out gags and excessive tonal shifts, “Neighbors” hits it home thanks to the talent of its actors. It feels so good to recommend a comedy.
The premise is a good one. Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) have a newborn baby girl and have recently moved into a nice, family-oriented neighborhood. While they enjoy marriage and cuddling with their insanely adorable daughter, both miss the fun of nonexistent bedtimes and only moderate responsibility. Neither wants to accept their transition into adulthood.
As if to remind them of their maturity, a fraternity known for its “legendary ragers” moves into the house next door. Zac Efron plays Teddy, the Delta Psi fraternity president, moving on from charming high school musicals to beer pong and hazing. Dave Franco is his VP, Pete, providing a nice comedic counterpoint to Teddy’s sometimes frightening intensity.
Things start off amicably enough, with Mac and Kelly agreeing to communicate directly with Teddy prior to calling the police about any noise complaints. When Teddy fails to answer his phone one night, however, Mac is forced to ring up the cops. Teddy cannot forgive Mac, and a series of back-and-forth revenge plots are hatched and executed.
The potential is massive here. For starters, Seth Rogen has been brilliantly cast as the man-child, initially offering weed to Teddy and Pete as a housewarming gift. Rogen is arguably the stoner king man-child of Hollywood, so to see him aging into an adult with a wife and child, saying things like, “I have a really hard time getting weed,” nudges the audience and shows the progression of a talented comedian whose timing is impeccable regardless of whether he has a joint or a pacifier in his hand.
It’s lucky that Rogen’s timing is so good considering the middling script. The dialogue, co-written by Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, is not unfunny, but so much of the humor comes from vulgar gags that I frankly had difficulty watching at times. The script is at its funniest in the little moments, like when Mac and Kelly are debating how best to approach the frat for the first time. Again, it’s really up to the actors to sell it, but the material is good. There are a few pop culture references, like a conversation between Mac and Teddy about Christian Bale’s Batman versus Michael Keaton’s. They do the voices. It’s short and sweet, but those were the moments I found myself genuinely laughing out loud. There’s a pretty hilarious Robert De Niro-themed party that looks just as ridiculous as it sounds.
“Animal House”-esque frat flicks are notorious for their devaluing of women, but director Ben Stoller gives Rose Byrne enormous freedom to craft a highly likable, nuanced performance as Kelly. There’s a great scene in which Kelly is airing her grievances about being the responsible parent, and cries, “I have a little bit of Kevin James in me!” The relationship between Mac and Kelly is one of the best I’ve seen in a while.
The relationships in “Neighbors” make the film. Obviously Mac and Kelly are great, but the bond that Teddy and Pete share is surprisingly deep in its own right, and together the two of them raise a few questions about academic responsibility and life after college. The frat brothers are amusing, and, again, the way that they all interact is what brings the funny. Surprisingly in a frat film, it’s the connections between characters that make for the most memorable comedy, and sometimes even pathos.
As I’ve said, the film really falters when it pushes things too far and the tone shifts to places it really shouldn’t, but there’s enough in “Neighbors” worth seeing that I feel comfortable in my recommendation. You may not laugh your socks off, but it’s a fine comedy. And hey, what better way to deal with the impending future of life after college than through a Seth Rogen comedy?