Nicholas Stoller’s hilarious Neighbors splashes into summer with the satisfying swish-plop-hooray of a winning beer pong serve, making the director, who also wrote March’s Muppets Most Wanted, the first filmmaker in history to simultaneously have in theaters both a kiddie flick and an R-rated comedy where two men sword-fight with dildos. Now that’s range.
Of course, Neighbors star Seth Rogen has sometimes seemed like a Muppet himself, say Fozzie Bear crossed with a man-child who smokes weed while on break at Best Buy. Now 32 and several years married, Rogen is ready to play a human being, as long as it doesn’t mean putting down the bong. (To prove it, in the first five minutes of the film he swallows a lit joint.)
Rogen plays Mac Radner, a cubicle drone who married his college sweetheart, Kelly (Rose Byrne), spawned a baby, and has just become the first in his friend group to buy a house. The Radners wear their suddenly suburban life like a gag costume, as though growing older is something they’re only doing ironically. They’re convinced that now little Stella (twins Elise and Zoey Vargas) is six months old, they’ll transition into the cool parents who can take their baby to a rave. Though, as the stay-at-home half of the partnership, Byrne occasionally lets her good cheer crack so we can hear her buried panic that she might never leave the house again.
When a fraternity — alas, not the make-them-hip-by-association gay couple they’d hoped for — moves in next door, Kelly and Mac are initially stoked to attend an all-night party within range of their baby monitor. Kelly bonds with the bimbos; Mac chews fistfuls of mushrooms and invents a dance best described as the tummy twerk. But as all-night transitions into every night, they’re forced to admit, most painfully to themselves, that they just can’t hang. And once the cops get called, it’s war.
This sounds like squares versus slobs, a recipe for stupid pratfalls. There’s plenty of the latter (see: dildo sword fight). But Stoller and screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien are too smart for simple stereotypes. This is family versus family, and neither house has the upper moral hand, especially once we start to suspect that the Radners are less outraged than desperate for distraction.
Delta Psi — the “Psi” gets sung like a battle whoop — are drunks under pressure. If frat president Teddy (Zac Efron), a tanned and toned demigod, can’t shepherd his brothers to paradise by throwing the biggest bash in Greek history, he’s a failure to the generations before him, those noble beerbarians who invented beer pong, toga parties, and, um, vomiting in your shoe so you can keep raging at a football game. “How are we supposed to stand on the shoulders of giants?” Teddy asks without a whiff of sarcasm. His flock nods sagely, a clan that includes eternal student Christopher Mintz-Plasse, breakout comedian Jerrod Carmichael, and the unnervingly handsome Dave Franco as a mentalist who can will an erection on command, a feat scored to the sort of somberly majestic music more often heard as the sun rises over Gettysburg. Yet between wild keggers choked with so much pot smoke that audiences might psychosomatically feel woozy, the film whispers what Teddy can’t quite admit: After graduation, none of this will matter. That unites him and the Radners in the same futile fight that destroyed the Confederacy: Each is clinging to a way of life that it’s time to outgrow.
Judging by his curious career, Efron can relate. At 18, High School Musical made him an international heartthrob. Quickly, he tried to get as serious as circumstances allowed, playing a PTSD-stricken veteran in a Nicholas Sparks romance and plunging headlong into Lee Daniels’s daffy drama The Paperboy. He’s got talent, and for a flicker it looked like he might underscore the point by pulling a Marlon Brando and thickening his pretty boy face with fat. But someone must have convinced Efron that he has time to act his age because he abruptly about-faced with two louche comedies (the other being January’s That Awkward Moment) and chiseled himself into what Mac gushes “looks like something a gay guy designed in a laboratory.”
Here, Efron gets his Brando moment — a wheelchair-bound meltdown worthy of Colonel Kurtz — while showing off his subtle comic timing down to the tiny gasp he squeaks when a rival grabs his balls. But Byrne is the movie’s MVP thanks to a script that does what few comedies allow: let the wife earn some laughs. Tequila shot for tequila shot, Byrne is at the center, driving the action. Whether screaming at the dean (Lisa Kudrow) who only cares about bad headlines or convincing Franco to put a ho before a bro, she’s so funny that you wonder once again why the Sandlers and Apatows of the world waste their women by writing them as shrews. Is Hollywood the ultimate fraternity? Maybe Byrne can break up that party, too.