Editor’s note: Our review of Neighbors originally ran during this year’s SXSW film festival, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in theaters.
You might expect an R-rated comedy starring Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, directed by the guy who made Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five-Year Engagement, to be loose and sloppy, like Rogen’s torso. But Neighbors turns out to be tight and lean and eminently watchable, like Efron’s torso. It’s boisterously funny, yet also focused and perceptive. Who knew a Rogen movie could be all of those things at once?
Rogen and the suddenly indispensable Rose Byrne play Mac and Kelly, new parents working through the mixed emotions of loving their adorable baby girl while missing their old, fun lives. After a few lukewarm gags along the usual lines (they want to go to a late-night party but fall asleep instead!), we get to the crux of the matter as a fraternity moves in to the house next door. Under the guidance of dude-bros Teddy (Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco), the frat behaves exactly the way Mac and Kelly were afraid they would, with raucous nightly parties. (For some reason they’re the only neighbors bothered by the noise.)
The new situation intensifies Mac and Kelly’s insecurity about becoming grown-ups. They want to be cool, and even more than that, they want to be cool in the eyes of hot college kids (Mac unhesitatingly calls Teddy “the sexiest man I’ve ever seen”). With a joint as a peace offering, the couple gets on the frat’s good side and they all promise to be considerate neighbors.
That doesn’t work out, obviously, and war is declared. And here comes the movie’s saving grace. Where the usual formula would be Mac vs. Teddy with Kelly staying on the sidelines rolling her eyes, the film (written by first-timers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien) makes Kelly an equal partner. She wants these douchebags out as much as her husband does, and Byrne is every bit as foul-mouthed and righteously angry as Rogen. So instead of being the voice of reason — oh, how actresses must get tired of playing the voice of reason in male-oriented comedies! — Kelly is a co-conspirator, using her female point of view to devise plans to bring the frat down by getting it in trouble with the university’s headline-averse dean (Lisa Kudrow) or by driving a wedge between best bros Teddy and Pete. No joke, Mac and Kelly have one of the best, most functional marriages of any movie couple so far this year.
The escalating pranks and sabotage are hilariously executed by director Nicholas Stoller and his cast, which also includes Christopher Mintz-Plasse as a frat member, Ike Barinholtz as Mac’s eager-to-destroy buddy, and a handful of funny lesser-known actors like Craig Roberts and Jerrod Carmichael. The physical comedy and sight gags are well choreographed, but the film doesn’t lean too heavily on jackassery for its laughs. Nor does it treat the frat boys solely as adversaries, giving us scenes from Teddy and Pete’s point of view to flesh them out (and “flesh” is definitely the right word). It would be easy in a comedy like this to do nothing but make fun of frat boys, but Neighbors doesn’t take the easy way out.
Stoller summons a few appropriate cameos for a brief sequence describing the frat’s history, and delivers good-natured raunch throughout. (It’s the clean kind of raunch, too — sex, not poop.) A minor subplot with the Barinholtz character’s estranged wife hooking up with a frat boy is oddly underdeveloped, but the gags associated with it are solid. This could be the big studio comedy to beat for 2014.
The Upside: Pretty much start-to-finish funny
The Downside: The Barinholtz subplot should have been beefed up or cut altogether
On the Side: Turns out Dave Franco does a killer De Niro in Meets the Parents impression