The appeal of The Hangover mostly eluded me, but I’m eternally grateful for its role in proving that 21st century, hard-R comedies can be successfully made by people who aren’t Judd Apatow.
Not that Apatow’s spirit doesn’t loom large in Neighbors, the latest in a spate of very bawdy—and very funny—comedies aimed at the increasingly nebulous space between adolescence and adulthood. The most obvious similarity lies in casting: Apatow’s frequent collaborator Seth Rogen stars as a new dad locked in a war of half-wits with his fraternity neighbors. But it’s also there in the film’s tone, which tempers juvenile raunchiness with pleasant sentimentality. Yes, there’s a dildo fight that sees Rogen and co-star Zac Efron wielding the sex toys like nunchuks and shivs, respectively. But amidst the barrage of F-bombs and ramped-up hedonism, Neighbors is actually very charming and even kind of sweet.
Directed by Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Neighbors doesn’t rush to set up the rivalry that drives it. We spend some time getting to know Mac and Kelly Radner (Rogen and Rose Byrne), a young married couple still trying to figure out exactly what it means to be parents. They’ve traded raves for rattles, but they long for the hedonistic lifestyle they enjoyed in college. They’ve sunk their entire savings into their first house, where they’re raising their infant daughter.
Mac and Kelly soon come to understand the first law of fictional real estate: You cannot sell your house, no matter how bad things get. Not if it’s built on an Indian burial ground. Not if the Realtor forgot to mention the hideous mass murder that took place in the house all those years ago. And not even if, God forbid, a fraternity buys the place next door and declares your neighborhood Ground Zero in its war on chastity, sobriety, and not having precision-crafted abs.
So when Delta Psi, a frat led by Teddy (Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco, James’ younger brother), buys the house next door to the Radners, moving is not an option. Mac and Kelly try some herbal diplomacy first, and it seems they’re successful in their attempt to buy neighborly consideration with a joint and a few awkward handshakes. But the Radners’ calls for quiet go unheeded, and soon they’re asking the cops to shut down a Delta Psi kegger. Frat president Teddy sees this as both an act of betrayal and a declaration of war, and things escalate quickly.
Teddy relishes the idea of a prank-off and launches a campaign involving airbags, toilet paper, and Robert De Niro-themed parties. The grownups, on the other hand, strike back with grownup nastiness, opting to inflict psychological and economic damage with attempts to vandalize the frat house and break up relationships of both the romantic and bromantic varieties.
It’s not genuine malice that drives them, though, and that’s what lifts Neighbors above the riffraff of practically every recent movie with delusions of Animal House grandeur. To Kelly and Mac, the frat house represents the youthful lifestyle they’ve left behind, and they want it back. When they initially outmaneuver the frat and get the peace and quiet they think they wanted, they find themselves working just as hard to cease the ceasefire.
The movie’s characters mostly fall into one of two categories: those who are prepared to embrace adulthood (Pete) or those who intend to defer it for as long as possible (Teddy). In spite of their initial motives, Mac and Kelly fall into the latter division, and that’s the dynamic that fuels much of Neighbors’ astonishingly dirty but ultimately good-natured humor.
Neighbors is also interesting as a sort of mile marker in the evolution of the modern American comedy. Its most obvious donor of genetic material is John Landis’ 1978 frat-war classic, but it’s just as much a product of Bridesmaids; in fact, a major source of conflict is Mac’s insistence that Kelly assume the role of reasonable peacemaker while he plays the badly behaved man-child—a notion that Kelly firmly rejects. It’s Kelly, played with razor-edged comic sensibilities by the eminently likable Byrne, who really pulls out all the stops in the couple’s attempts to take down the frat. Some of Neighbors’ funniest scenes relegate Rogen to the role of straight man to Byrne’s antics.
The real scene-stealer, though, is Efron, who does a Channing Tatum-style turnaround and proves to be quite gifted as a comic actor. He plays the dumb but cunning Teddy with equal parts boyish charm and childish vindictiveness. Efron gets plenty of help from his co-stars, from Rogen, Byrne, and Franco to supporting players such as Lisa Kudrow as the school’s PR-conscious dean, but much of Neighbors’ appeal rests on his well-defined deltoids, and he deserves props for rising to the occasion. You know the saying: tragedy is easy, but having a sex-toy slapfight with another grown man is really, really hard.