When a Delta Tau Chi-wannabe frat, led by party Poobah Teddy (Zac Efron), moves next door to thirty-something married-with-baby Mac (Seth Rogan) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), hijinks ensue. It’s about the most basic comedic premise possible, and NEIGHBORS, from GET HIM TO THE GREEK director Nicholas Stoller, is happy to traipse through it with an effortless, carefree abandon that makes for a quick, bright, one-and-done comic trifle as watchable as it is unmemorable.
Marketed as Rogen vs. Efron, the film is content to be precisely that, pitting rote versions of each actor’s public stereotypes – the latter’s droll, shrugging schlubbery and the former’s chiseled, entitled douchefulness - against one another in a series of escalating pranks and asinine subterfuge.
At its best, the film features several inspired and absurd sequences of physical comedy, including an escalating series of the airbag gags featured in the trailer, and a flailing, prop-enhanced brawl between the two leads. Stoller also excels at visually capturing the booze-sopping, drug-fueled mayhem of the frat’s near-nightly ragers. It’s not quite ENTER THE VOID, but the camerawork is kinetic enough to convey bombastic energy, pulling backward out of bongs, weaving amid gyrating, sweaty flesh, and plunging through strobe lights and pot smoke.
(Comedy-wise, Efron earns his keep, but my favorite of the frat pack is Jerrod Carmichael as Garf, whose intermittent kush-slushed interjections are stoner comedy gold.)
Unfortunately, the momentum doesn’t carry over into the domestic scenes, which are necessarily blander in their visual presentation, but which also aren’t particularly funny. Byrne isn’t a comedic dynamo, but when placed among the frat brahs, she spits enough firecracker charm to pop through profane comic setpieces. When it’s just her and Rogan, though, the laughs humor starts to sputter. A bit in which their baby teethes on a condom, and another where the couple must creatively compensate for a busted breast pump are particularly uninspired.
It’s not just a lack of chemistry between Rogan and Byrne. The pseudo-dramatic scenes between the frat brothers, particularly those involving Teddy and chapter Vice President Pete (David Franco), feel a bit logy. In what feels like a hasty misapplication of Apatow comedy principles, NEIGHBORS is intent on purveying meaningful emotional resonance. And it couldn’t be clumsier.
The film is easy to understand – both the Greeks and the newlybreds are families in flux. For the frat, the couple are a harbinger of college mortality – the commuting, suburban, lawn-mowing cuckoo affixed to a swiftly tightening spring inside a relentless clock counting down the final minutes of party time. For the couple, the frat is as much a threat to their new family’s sleep schedule as it is an unwelcome object of unhealthy youthful nostalgia for a lifestyle they’re just coming to terms with losing.
It’s a welcome subtext - I like that the NEIGHBORS doesn’t lock Rogan and Efron into a lazy dichotomy. - but it’s not a subtle one. And certainly not one that, once both warring parties are imbued with some measure of relatability, warrants further reinforcement. So when the film stops to establish that Pete dreams of being an architect, or that Terry is secretly depressed by his lack of direction, or for Mac and Kelly to have a screaming argument, it doesn’t create welcome, artful depth - it impedes upon the expected stupid fun.