The “raunchy frat comedy” subgenre evolves at a rate of roughly once a decade—or once per generation of teenagers—with the now-quaint toga-party/panty-raid shenanigans of the Animal House and Revenge Of The Nerds eras giving way to the broad political incorrectness of PCU, which gave way to Old School’s irreverent anarchy. Each generation gets the obnoxious Greek antics it deserves, and Neighbors is unmistakably a product of the 2010s, from its relaxed attitude toward drugs to its embrace of the improvisational energy that defines most modern film comedy to, most notably, the hints of anxiety and ambivalence about the future that permeate its story. Neighbors does its duty in out-debauching its predecessors, but does so through a framework that undercuts the nobility of youthful hedonism. It’s one of the most adult college comedies ever, while also leaving plenty of room for setpieces involving a dildo fight and other phallocentric hijinks.
New parents Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) are the conduits for that future-anxiety, as they spend the film trying to reconcile the carefree revelry of their near-past with the forced responsibility and exhaustion of adulthood—represented by an early sequence where they attempt to take their infant daughter to a rave, but pass out while assembling the necessary baby-wrangling equipment. When a college fraternity moves into the house next door, Mac and Kelly have to stare their ambivalence toward adulthood in the face—a face attached to the obscenely well-defined torso of Zac Efron. (“He looks like something a gay guy designed in a laboratory,” Mac marvels.) Efron plays Delta Psi Beta president Teddy, an updated Bluto type whose primary goal in life is carving out his place in the storied party history of his frat, one that ostensibly includes the genesis of the toga party, beer pong, and the “boot and rally.” After a few initial attempts to “be cool” and ingratiate themselves with the Delta Psis—they offer a “welcome to the neighborhood” joint, awkwardly invoke the word “trill,” and join in an overnight rager while their baby sleeps next door—Mac and Kelly are forced into the roles of the “keep it down” scolds they desperately wanted to avoid becoming. When their pleas to the Delta Psis for peace and quiet go unheeded, an all-out war ensues, as Mac and Kelly try to get the frat disbanded, and Teddy responds with Machiavellian cunning.
What keeps Neighbors from being simply a glorified prank-war movie is its smart characterization, which makes up for the film’s general lack of narrative drive. Teddy in particular could have been a one-note party monster, but Efron’s performance lends a welcome twinge of desperation to the character. That’s highlighted by the presence of Dave Franco as Teddy’s right-hand man, Pete, a fellow Delta Psi who’s equally adept at partying, but also able to see past senior year and plan for what lies beyond the frat’s year-end bacchanal. Teddy, Pete, and Mac form a sort of continuum of early male adulthood, with each reflecting back on the other two in a way that highlights the insecurities and flaws of each character. Similarly, but less successfully, Ike Barinholtz and Carla Gallo are on hand as Mac and Kelly’s separated, even-less-mature friends, ostensibly to provide a single-person counterpoint to their married-person problems. Their characters mostly come across as an afterthought—though Barinholtz’s riffs with Rogen are among the film’s comedic highlights.
Happily, Kelly largely avoids being the nagging scold in this XY-dominated scenario, as her unease with the tedium and dehumanization of motherhood drives her to dive headlong into the excitement of war with the Delta Psis, under the guise of providing a healthy environment for her child. Unfortunately, Byrne is merely capable in the role, hitting the right beats, but never matching Rogen, Efron, and Franco’s energy. (The mind-bogglingly adorable infant twins who play her daughter steal more scenes than she does.) Filling out the picture is a generally great supporting cast, including comedian Hannibal Buress as a lackadaisical police officer, and Lisa Kudrow in a small but hilarious role as the dean of the university, defining the broad strokes of the “evil dean” archetype with some nuance regarding current trends in university/fraternity scandals, and the eye-catching headlines they invite.
Since director Nicholas Stoller debuted with 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall, he’s displayed a gift for wrangling talented comedic improvisors, and an aversion to reining them in, with all three of his previous features hovering around the two-hour mark. So it’s a sign of welcome growth on his part that Neighbors maintains the shaggy, improvisational-seeming comedic energy of his Get Him To The Greek and The Five-Year Engagement, but gets it done in a tight 96 minutes. Neighbors walks the line between comedic indulgence and actual honest-to-God filmmaking choices—something far too rare in the post-Apatow era of comedy. It helps that Stoller uses the film’s party scenes to inject real style into a genre that so often boils down to placing a camera, then letting actors riff within its static frame; the Delta Psis’ various themed fêtes are shot with an almost Spring Breakers-esque hedonistic surrealism, amplified by a well-deployed soundtrack of pop and hip-hop. These sequences provide a nice bit of stylized, atmospheric punctuation between the frenzied comedic action that composes most of Neighbors.
Like most comedies of its ilk, Neighbors ultimately boils down to a series of comedic setpieces of variable success and memorability. (At the low end of the former, but the high end of the latter: A regrettable, disgusting sequence involving Kelly’s explosively milk-filled mammaries.) Even within its relatively brief running time, it never gathers much momentum, with the narrative and emotional stakes remaining more or less unchanged over the course of the film. But while it’s occasionally distasteful, it’s an engaging hangout film from beginning to end, thanks to its game performances and smart direction. The raunchy-frat-comedy subgenre is slow to evolve, but Neighbors marks a solid step forward.