Screenwriters Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver know how to get the party started and keep it lively.
Here is the thing about "Neighbors," a hard-R hybrid of "Animal House" and a sort-of sequel to "Knocked Up" in which a Gen X couple with an infant daughter and a hefty mortgage declares war on the rowdy Gen Y frat boys who move in next door: You will laugh. Maybe not nearly as much as during "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" or "Superbad" but there is a steady stream of inducements to at least chuckle with regularity. Most of these lewd dollops of humor rely on what we will refer to (as a matter of decorum) as “Richard” jokes, ranging from artisanal dildos to the miracle of an instant erection.
You may even applaud, as my audience did, when Rose Byrne—as mother and wife Kelly, who desperately needs a night out and is shockingly adept at cursing—proves her comedic prowess in "Bridesmaids" was no fluke. With almost scary zeal, she summons her fulsome wiles to seduce both a girl and a guy into hooking up after lubricating their libidos with several rounds of shots.
You will also groan at some of the more inappropriate moments, such as the unfortunate use of the “N” word as well as an ill-advised joke about baby HIV. Also annoying is the lack of any fully developed women beyond Byrne and Lisa Kudrow as a fed-up college dean. The female students fluttering by all seem to dress as if they were in a Victoria’s Secret fashion show. And note to the two male screenwriters, Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien: Breast-feeding is not as amusing as you think it is.
As for the plot, it’s a grass-is-always-greener scenario—but with plenty of weed, too. The twist is, both sides want what the other one has. For cubicle drone Mac (Seth Rogen), it’s a chance to revisit his responsibility-free past. For party major Teddy (Zac Efron), it’s a possible future beyond hot-tub bacchanals and hazing underclassmen. They are less foils and more fun-house reflections of one another, and that is rather deep for this kind of id-driven tomfoolery.
Much like Nicholas Stoller’s previous directorial efforts, "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Get Him to the Greek," "Neighbors" is messily pasted together with improvised bits and plot threads that dangle. I miss the days when comedy scripts were lovingly honed, with dialogue that sang not stuttered. But at least Stoller manages to avoid many of the clichés of the raunchy bromance genre. Still, it makes no sense that no one else on the block complains that the Greeks blare music and set off fireworks at all hours.
But what is most surprising about this latest effort from graduates of the Judd Apatow Clown Academy for Emotionally Stunted Males is that Efron gives his most mature and nuanced post-"High School Musical" performance yet as the alpha stud of Delta Psi. Not that his character is one note. Instead, like a latter-day Eddie Haskell but with killer abs, he easily slips from sincere and reassuring to sneaky and underhanded when counter-attacks are called for. You actually feel his regret when it finally dawns on him that maybe he should have gone to class once in a while.
Meanwhile, Rogen—a producer along with his usual cohort, Evan Goldberg—has devolved back into his standard pothead schlub routine after taking a stretch with more dramatic work in "Take This Waltz" and "50/50" as well as playing straight man to Barbra Streisand in "The Guilt Trip." The problem is "Neighbors" will likely gross more at the box office than all those three films combined. Who would have predicted that Jonah Hill—the Boo-Boo to Rogen’s Yogi Bear—would be the one to end up with two Oscar nominations?
A sub-strata of fresh faces provides able support, including Dave Franco (younger brother of James) as Pete, Teddy’s sharper second-in-command; Craig Roberts ("Submarine") as a frat recruit known as Assjuice; and standup comic Hannibal Buress as a laid back police officer. And how long can Christopher Mintz-Plasse get away with a resume full of variations on his McLovin character?
But no one holds the screen like Mac and Kelly’s big-eyed darling of a daughter, played by twins Elise and Zoey Vargas. Universal, the studio behind "Neighbors," may want to consider putting her outtakes online judging by the chorus of “awws” heard whenever she shows up.
A coda before the end credits that finds Mac and Teddy connecting shirtlessly outside an Abercrombie & Fitch provides welcome closure. Be forewarned, however: If this movie becomes popular, car airbags are destined to become the new whoopee cushions.