Gleefully Filthy "Neighbors" Good For Hearty Laughs

Nicholas Stoller’s “Neighbors” is nothing short of furious in its jabs, hooks, and uppercuts at the funny bone – punches that don’t always land, but are routinely reinforced by a crazed sense of enthusiasm that sustains the film through its rough patches. Even more appealing is that Stoller and his screenwriters (Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O’Brien) aren’t content to merely get laughs. No, they’ve set their sights on all kinds of laughs, squeezing every comedic subgenre into a single 90-minute film. You want frat comedy? Done. Bromance? Check. Gross-out gags? Absolutely. Romantic comedy? Sure. Slapstick? Oh, yes. It’s an approach that might grow tedious in list form, but not on screen. “Neighbors” is terrific pop filmmaking, as pristine a comedy as you’ll see this year.

Universal has billed “Neighbors” as a pseudo-prank war between stars Seth Rogen (“Knocked Up”) and Zac Efron (“High School Musical”). And it is that, to a point. New dad, Mac Radner (Rogen), finds himself living next door to a rowdy fraternity house led by womanizer Teddy Sanders (Efron). In Mac’s quest for peace and quiet, personalities clash and hijinks ensue. That’s the essence of the film and Universal isn’t wrong to sell it as such. And the unlikely pairing of Rogen and Efron works. But those elements are merely the film’s skeleton. Rose Byrne (“Bridesmaids”) as Mac’s wife, Kelly, is its heart and its runaway star, bringing impeccable comedic timing and inimitable charm to a male-heavy cast. I’m loath to call her the film’s secret weapon as she’s already proven herself gifted across multiple genres, but she’s too good not to take viewers by surprise.

Additionally, Dave Franco (“21 Jump Street”) is indispensable as Pete, Teddy’s smarmy right hand, rounding out a quartet of appealing, charismatic leads. Rogen and Efron mostly play caricatures of themselves – one the schlubby stoner-dad, the other a not-as-dumb-as-he-looks pretty boy – but all four actors bring multi-dimensionality to their roles, providing each with surprisingly human moments. Take, for example, a scene in which Mac and Kelly decide to take their infant daughter to a rave. Tired of their newly boxed-in lives, the desire to feel young again briefly overrides parental instinct. Rogen and Byrne are an ideal fit to portray warm, caring, but not fully formed parents, and their innate, sweet naivety easily sells a pretty ridiculous scene – one of many.

Although the narrative is slight, the small but significant generational gap between the pair of leads makes everything pop. A dividing line that begins insignificantly, like a deflated party balloon, quickly expands to Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade-size. Mac and Kelly initially pass muster as frat party guests, but their plan to win the favor of their rowdy neighbors via ingratiation doesn’t go as planned. Despite pledging to keep the noise down, Teddy and Pete continue to party like its their job, further angering the couple next door. Cue the aforementioned war of attrition.

At this point, a lesser filmmaker would allow the gags to blare over the top of everything else, but Stoller and company are too talented for a comedic numbers game. They keep the interpersonal dynamics interesting and the pacing tight throughout, allowing the jokes to crescendo and decrescendo naturally. More impressively, a few supporting players – including Ike Barinholtz as Mac’s best friend, Mike – are given sizable story arcs of their own amidst the chaos, along with a healthy share of laughs. Stand-up comic Hannibal Burress is especially funny in a brief role as police officer caught in the middle of the mayhem.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the film’s high point, but a climactic fight scene between Rogen and Efron is breathtakingly funny – a perfect confluence of physical and verbal humor that might literally take your breath away. The film has trouble coming down from its multitude of highs – its epilogue is strangely aimless – but it’s senseless to criticize a comedy for flying so high that what follows feels like a let down. In fact, the film’s avoidance of last minute theatrics might be a savvy move. It’s the sign of a movie confident in its accomplishments, and rightfully so.

“Neighbors” is an inspired piece, full of wonderful little moments that might have been improvised, or might have served as the seedlings of the script. It’s impossible to tell the difference, an organic quality usually found in the genre’s best. There’s a spark to it, a passion that propels the pic from amusing diversion to the palpable kind of pop culture event that only comes along once in a while – akin to R-rated mega-comedies “The Hangover” and “Bridesmaids.” Its varied cast and far-reaching approach should translate to both massive box office and widespread adoration, and it’s more than deserving. If “Neighbors” isn’t quite an instant cult classic, it’s at least a cult classic-in-waiting.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: May 9, 2014
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Screenwriter: Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O’Brien
Starring: Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz, Carla Gallo, Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Hannibal Burress
MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language, strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use throughout)