I want to live in Nicholas Stoller‘s world. In his last film, the bewilderingly underrated “The Five-Year Engagement,” he demonstrated an impressive sense of fairness when mediating the protracted resentments between unhappy fiancés Jason Segel and Emily Blunt.
Stoller displays a similar empathy for both sides of a feud in “Neighbors,” and it’s that rare emotional intelligence – along with the film’s sly, surprising jokes and self-aware sidestepping of comedy clichés – that makes this Seth Rogen vehicle an instant classic.
As the first couple among their friends to move to the ‘burbs and pop out a kid, Mac and Kelly Radner (Rogen and Rose Byrne) are anxious about losing their cool cred even before a frat house full of perpetual spring breakers moves in next door. Mac and Kelly’s first night as neighbors to a herd of party monsters gives them the chance to binge on beer and blunts like they’re skipping class tomorrow. But when Delta Psi prez Teddy (Zac Efron) and his right-hand dude Pete (Dave Franco) throw parties night after night, the new parents scheme to rid the house next door of its frat infestation.
Efron’s ultramarine eyes twinkle with a sociopathic glint, but Stoller and writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien aspire to something much more ambitious than a showdown between the good bougies and the petty millennials. Teddy spends a pitifully huge amount of time planning a kegger for the ages, but he and Pete ensure that the fraternity is a real brotherhood. His natural leadership abilities allow him to foil one of Mac and Kelly’s plans – to turn a pledge named Assjuice (Craig Roberts) against his housemates – with an unexpectedly kind pep talk, ultimately earning the teen’s admiring loyalty.
Delta Psi also boasts the film’s most interesting relationship, that between slacker Teddy and studious Pete. As graduation looms closer, their friendship is strained by their inevitably divergent paths, and Stoller uses their increasing distance to ask compelling questions about hedonism and debauchery. “Neighbors” is keenly aware that college is a bubble, and thus mines real poignancy from the fact that Teddy is using his vendetta against Mac and Kelly to distract himself from his uncertain future.
While the fully developed relationships between the characters ground the film, the high-concept gags will keep audiences’ bellies sore from laughter. The back-and-forth pranks between the Radners and the frat house escalate in nastiness and hilarity, and self-contained flights of comic fancy keep the jokes rolling in, as when Teddy and Pete affirm their bond by trying to think of as many different ways to say “bros before hos” as possible.
A shirtless, sometimes pants-less Rogen aims for somewhere between Will Ferrell and Lena Dunham in revealing his body; the effect is both amusingly repulsive and politically transgressive. And because it wouldn’t be a Seth Rogen movie without a bazillion cameos, we’re treated to memorable scenes with comedy pros Hannibal Burress, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Mantzoukas and Randall Park.
What makes “Neighbors” exceptional, rather than merely great, is its successful attempt to reinvent the studio comedy. Stoller, Cohen, and O’Brien acknowledge how dreadfully formulaic and subtly (or not-so-subtly) sexist the genre has become – there’s that sense of fairness again – in a scene where Mac and Kelly point out their fat guy-hot wife dynamic. “I’m the dumb guy!” Mac proclaims. “Haven’t you seen a Kevin James movie?” Kelly retorts that she doesn’t want to be the responsible one; it’s boring being a nag.
(Every actress under 40 in Hollywood just whispered under her breath, “Amen, sister!”)
“Neighbors” doesn’t give the always excellent Byrne as much to do as Rogen, but she has at least one richly layered scene that proves Stoller and his writers aren’t just all talk. Kelly initiates a girl-girl-boy kiss at one of the frat parties, a make-out scene that the trailer passes off as a male-gaze indulgence but in context is something much more thrilling, devious, and hilariously mortifying (for Mac).
It’s one of this very funny film’s comic highlights, and a great (if unnecessary) illustration that the killjoy-wife trope is more tired than a hibernating CGI bear voiced by Kevin James.