Beer Belly vs. Six Pack: "Neighbors" a loose, likably bawdy case of laughs
96 min., rated R.
It's easy to throw together a crass, lowbrow gross-out comedy, but in the case of "Neighbors," there's a heart of a softie underneath the condoms and bong hits. No matter if it won't be the studio comedy of the summer season to beat, it's loose, quick-witted, and very much in the raunchy, R-rated spirit and Apatowian baliwick of director Nicholas Stoller's previous output (2008's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," 2010's "Get Him to the Greek" and 2012's "The Five-Year Engagement"). Stoller's latest is factually his shortest but still a few improvisational trade-offs too long, however, it's not limited in goofball lunacy or unexpected insight into coping with adult responsibilities and sowing one's wild oats. Shaggily written by first-timers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, the film skewers but earnestly embraces both parenthood and dude-bro Greek life, ultimately reaching critical mass as a likably blue and bawdy comedy, often matching the likes of "National Lampoon's Animal House."
New parents Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) have just moved into a nice starter home in a quiet L.A. neighborhood. They love their baby daughter Stella (Zoey and Elise Vargas), but they don't want to become square, boring party-pooper parents, either, as Mac works an office job and Kelly stays home during the day with the baby. Next thing they know, college fraternity Delta Psi Beta moves in next door. With Stella in tow, Mac and Kelly welcome the boys to the neighborhood, trying to play it cool and ask them to "keep it down." Buff frat president Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) and his best friend and vice president, Pete (Dave Franco), seem charming enough, and Mac and Kelly promise the guys to always call them first if they get too loud. But the night Delta Psi Beta has its first rager of the semester, the Radners can't get ahold of Teddy, so they call the police with an anonymous noise complaint. A petty, infantile all-out war begins and then spirals out of control between the stroller-pushing Radners and Teddy and his house of beer-chuggers.
Opening with a memorably uncomfortable sex scene where baby Stella happens to be watching Mommy and Daddy, "Neighbors" does tap into that honest-and-funny sweet spot that's usually checked off in most Judd Apatow productions (even if this is not from his production factory). Mac and Kelly don't want to lose their freedom, an idea that will be relatable to new parents and gets milked in an amusing setup and payoff where the lovely couple prepares to try going out for the night to a rave with their infant daughter, only to collapse and fall asleep at the door. However, no one should look to "Neighbors" for any new parenting tips, as Mac and Kelly leave their baby at home to attend a frat party, even if they do keep an eye on their baby monitor while twerking and getting high. The counterpoint to these two is Mac's friend Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz) and gum-smacking ex-wife Paula (Carla Gallo), who eventually aid Mac and Kelly in their takedown mission. When the couple does have an obligatory falling-out briefly before the final third, it seems to grow organically out of the characters and thankfully doesn't sag the pacing. The battle-of-the-neighbors premise almost writes itself, but screenwriters Cohen and O'Brien don't leave any comedic opportunity unfulfilled, working within a framework on which to hang a string of comic set-pieces. One could find red flags with the central contrivance, but the Radners do try moving, and so what if the other neighbors on the street seem to sleep right through the frat's rowdy fiestas?
Reliably funny and good-hearted as Mac, who may be domesticated but still hasn't retired the pastime of getting stoned, Seth Rogen continues to play a lovably paunchy everyman and man-baby that he's made his name on. The film's real MVP is the always-winning Rose Byrne. Between "Get Him to the Greek," "Bridesmaids" and "I Give It a Year," it's no revelation that Byrne has honed such ace improv skills and wonderfully delivered comic timing. Being able to keep her adorable native Aussie accent intact, she's even more charming and fun to watch with a potty mouth, and it's such a treat that the script intelligently never marginalizes Kelly or treats her as a shrill, type-A nag; she's actually the brains of the operation to infiltrate Delta Psi Beta. This is a breakthrough for Zac Efron if there ever was one. As the carefree and devious Teddy, the life of the party who hides a secret vulnerability and fear of growing up after college, Efron not only makes love to the camera in all his shirtless, Abercrombie-ready glory but proves his capability for comedy with confidence and self-deprecation. Dave Franco, as the brainy Pete who has a bright future post-senior year, also keeps proving to be a comic find with an edgy charisma and that wicked smirk he shares with older brother James. At a Robert De Niro-themed party the frat holds, his "Meet the Parents" impression is pricelessly spot-on. Both Efron and Franco perfect an off-the-cuff variation on the "bros before hos" code. The comedically nimble Lisa Kudrow also drops in as the unhelpful college dean who equates every problem with a newspaper headline.
Zipping along and rarely ever having the chance to wear out its welcome, "Neighbors" purely knows when and how to have fun. The speedy riffing and crude humor are usually on target—even if it's of the raucous frat-boy variety, from erections to urination to condoms and dildos—and the escalating sabotage pranks become the film's pinnacle. An iffy, protracted "milking" gag seems like it wants to do what "There's Something About Mary" and "Bridesmaids" did for tuxedo zippers and bridal store bathrooms, but this will be the movie remembered more for its inspired, startlingly hilarious use of stolen airbags. (No worries, the trailers didn't spoil every surprise.) Director Stoller brings out a spontaneity and riotous energy in his cast and, with cinematographer Brandon Trost, achieves some trippy, highlighter-colored visual style in the bacchanalia scenes, along with a frat-happy soundtrack that includes Nappy Roots' "Good Day," Fergie's "London Bridge," and Ke$ha's "Die Young." The film might not have the rewatchability of, say, "Knocked Up" or "Superbad," but it doesn't necessarily have to as long as the laughs stick the hardest during its 96 minutes.