If nothing else, give Seth Rogen credit for acknowledging his age. Sure, in his latest movie, ‘Neighbors’, he plays a stoner with a heart of gold who feuds with frat kids, but at least this time he’s playing a thirty-something stoner with a heart of gold feuding with frat kids. By Hollywood standards, that’s a miracle. The movie is also very funny, which is also a bit of a miracle.
Though told from the perspective of Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne playing a pair of new parents and homeowners struggling to deal with the concept of adulthood, ‘Neighbors’ is at its core a college comedy. Given that the genre tends to pop up with one hit per generation, it’s a bit weird that it took this long for Rogen to make one (excluding his time on the cancelled-before-its-time ‘Undeclared’, which Rogen co-wrote and starred in rather than actually going to college). So, it’s amusing that when he finally stumbled into a college comedy, he did it as an outsider looking in, desperately wanting to be part of the party he missed out on.
The plot summary for the film could fill a postage stamp. Rogen and Byrne awkwardly ask their new fratboy neighbors (Zac Efron and Dave Franco) to keep it down during their super-cool, kick-ass parties. The kids don’t, and the baby parents call the cops. A war breaks out between the college kids and the adults who act like kids. End of plot. It’s a simple comedy premise, but for the type of essentially meaningless laugh-fest ‘Neighbors’ wants to be, it’s all that’s necessary.
The film comes from Judd Apatow disciple Nicholas Stoller, who previously directed ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’, ‘Get Him to the Greek’ and ‘The Five-Year Engagement’ (in addition to writing the new ‘Muppets’ flicks). Like his previous outings, the movie is essentially a premise and an improvisation festival with the likes of Rogen (who also took an uncredited pass at the script with buddy Evan Goldberg), Byrne, Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Hannibal Buress swatting jokes and make-em-ups back and forth with reckless abandon. It’s the way this brand of R-rated comedy is made these days, and with each movie Stoller is getting better at containing the anarchy. ‘Neighbors’ might feel shaggy from all the improv, but the director at least keeps the running time to around 96 minutes, injects just enough narrative form for flow, and even tosses in a few visual flourishes. He’s slowly developing a style somewhere between the surrealism of Adam McKay and the funny/sad charm of Judd Apatow, and this is definitely Stoller’s smoothest outing to date, if not necessarily his best.
Rogen and all of his comedy compadres deliver the laughs you’d expect, but the real surprise is Rose Byrne. The actress is unschooled in this brand of comedy, but endlessly charming and game. She offers Rogen easily his best female sparring partner to date. Dave Franco is also pretty fantastic as the one fratboy with a brain, but his comedy chops only make Zac Efron’s comedically-challenged ways all the more obvious. Don’t get me wrong, Efron is actually a decent actor when he tries, and nails the tragedy of his graduating manchild without a future, but when you’re in a movie where one of your biggest scenes is a dildo fight, gravitas is not the primary goal. Efron just isn’t as funny as everyone around him, and that’s a big comedy black hole in the center of a cast bursting with zingers and funnies.
In the end, ‘Neighbors’ is a meaningless romp. Sure, it has some truth about the inevitability of maturity slipped in, but that’s not nearly as important as the airbag pranks, gratuitous milking scenes, and enough weed jokes to make Cheech (but not Chong) blush. That’s not a bad thing when the hit-to-miss ratio is as high as it is here. It just puts a cap on how much you can get out of the movie. (Rven the weird darkness and meta-comedy of last year’s no less silly ‘This Is the End’ was enough to make that movie more substantial.)
If you’re looking for chuckles that won’t require much brain power (as a result of immaturity, stupidity, being stoned or all three), this flick delivers in spades. It might not feel like a new comedy classic like Rogen’s best work, but at least confirms that he’s out of the cashgrab ‘Green Hornet’/’Guilt Trip’ phase of his career.