Silver Screen: Neighbors ***1/2
Time waits for no man-child. You can only be a hard-partying stoner goofball for so long— say, into your mid- to late-thirties, before something like adulthood sets in. For a decade Seth Rogen played the responsibility-shunning, amiably aimless deadbeat, but in Neighbors the tables have turned and it’s he who must utter that uncoolest of phrases: “Can you please turn it down?”
Neighbors, a much-better-than-average summertime comedy, is specifically about the transition between young and being grownup but not old. New parents Mac and Kelly Radner (Rogen and Rose Byrne) are determined to be the cool mom and dad. They can take baby Stella (played by adorable twins Elise and Zoey Vargas) to a rave with their wild drinking buddy (Carla Gallo), or at least they could if they didn’t fall asleep while waiting for it to start. Mac tries to sneak in some fun with his coworker Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz) even though they occupy cubicles in a dull office job, while Kelly struggles with the isolation of being a stay-at-home mom.
Their worries about becoming old people are magnified when a fraternity moves into the house next door. They don’t want collegiate shenanigans intruding on their daughter’s sleep schedule, but they don’t want to acknowledge that their own partying days are behind them, either, so when they approach frat leaders Teddy and Pete (Zac Efron and Dave Franco) about keeping the revelry to a dull roar, they come bearing gifts of reefer.
The frat boys are recovering from a recent accident that burned down their last house— “strike one,” according to the school’s permissive, ineffectual dean (Lisa Kudrow)— so they want to keep a relatively low profile as well. But eventually minor misunderstandings, spurred on by an unhelpful cop (SIU alum and standup-comedy star Hannibal Buress), are blown out of proportion, and the Radners find themselves in a feud with a frat that threatens to destroy the neighborhood.
All you really need to make a decent comedy are good jokes and a handful of actors to deliver them well. Neighbors has a surplus of both. The script from Andrew Cohen and Brendan O’Brien is sharp and no doubt punched up on the fly by the consistently hilarious Rogen, Franco, and Gallo, plus solid turns from a delightfully dopy Efron and newcomer Jerrod Carmichael, all under the watchful eye of ace director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement).
What elevates Neighbors above the level of wacky feud farce is its sympathetic approach to characters on both sides of the fence. Kelly and Mac are struggling with a life transition that leaves them both annoyed by but jealous of their younger counterparts. He yearns for days of drug-fueled reckless abandon, and she’s confined by the physical and emotional solitude of parenthood.
Meanwhile, the frat bros are the easiest caricatures, but Stoller finds added dimensions to them as well. Teddy and Pete are presented, without irony, as just as much a functioning couple as the Radners. They have girlfriends, but the coeds are mostly superfluous to the guys’ chemistry. Teddy is a beefcake who embraces the cliché— Mac says he looks “like something a gay guy created in a laboratory”— but whose zeal for the frat masks his insecurities about his place in post-collegiate life. Pete is a sensitive guy still wounded by his parents’ divorce, and throughout the feud he frets over its potential effect on baby Stella.
Neighbors is light but not quite frivolous. Though the man himself might not be involved, Judd Apatow’s fingerprints are all over it, from the performers (Rogen, Gallo, Franco) to the riffing, the bromance, and a slightly small-c conservative leaning. And like Apatow’s movies, the gags, which would be sufficient on their own, have real emotional underpinnings.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.