A remarkably large percentage of American comedies, especially those featuring members of Judd Apatow’s extended ensemble, preach the importance of growing up. The irony is that they also depend on their stars not taking that lesson to heart, as who wants to watch Jonah Hill behave “maturely” or Jason Segel act like an adjusted adult? Neighbors, a new comedy from the director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, may be the first film of its subgenre to acknowledge how old the freaks of Freaks And Geeks have actually gotten, and to express nostalgia for the days when they could still believably play overgrown adolescents. Seth Rogen, who seems more man than man-child these days, and Rose Byrne, of Bridesmaids fame, star as new parents whose anxiety about their waning youth fuels a feud with the frat boys who move in next door. In theory, that’s a brilliant conceit, as it allows Rogen to finally (sort of) act his age, while also passing the arrested-development torch to a couple of younger actors. Trouble is, Neighbors rarely exploits its generational war of attrition for big laughs or true insight. And despite a couple of puerile gags, it often feels as domesticated (and fatigued) as its main characters.
Things start promisingly enough, with screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien shrewdly placing some of the blame for the later events on his protagonists. Determined to lay down the suburban law without coming across as uptight squares, Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Byrne) fail to establish proper boundaries with their new neighbors, partying at their pad one night and then bitching about the noise the next. When the two call the cops after swearing that they won’t, fraternity leaders Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco) decide this means war. From there, Neighbors could have exploded into an escalating game of prankish one-upmanship—a battle royale between reformed party animals and the new generation of carefree troublemakers they envy. Instead, it just coasts, squandering the Machiavellian potential in favor of CGI slapstick, sub-Farrelly brothers gross outs (isn’t breastfeeding disgusting, bro?), and the usual hit-or-miss improv. The film’s vision of fraternity life is also surprisingly tame, amounting to little more than a couple of loud ragers, some light hazing, and a dildo sale.
Neighbors is a bit of a mess, neither outrageous nor thoughtful enough to compensate for its lack of narrative imagination. But the film is also not without its modest pleasures. Who knew, for example, that Efron had these comedic chops? He turns Teddy, the film’s nominal antagonist, into a surprisingly complicated character—first by revealing the arrogant fury simmering beneath his mellow charm, then by revealing a shade of deeper anxiety beneath that layer. Exploiting his pretty-boy celebrity for laughs, and boasting a superhero’s physique, the High School Musical alum exhibits the makings of a movie star. And he’s well matched by the younger Franco brother; the two steal scenes on the regular, narrating a montage of Greek-life milestones, sparring like brothers, and doing an extended riff on “bros before hos.” If Rogen and his cohorts are really aging out of their wheelhouse, Efron and Franco could make suitable replacements.
As for that bro-before-ho policy: There’s also something endearing about seeing Rogen paired with a female co-conspirator for once. After starring in nearly a decade of guy’s guy buddy comedies, many of which turned love interests into fun impediments, Neighbors’ vision of spouses as enabling besties has a certain charm of its own. (Byrne is nothing if not game.) If only the film thought of more to do with the characters, who seem trapped in the first draft of a funnier, more anarchic laughfest. It may leave fans yearning for the glory days of seven years ago, when the idea of Seth Rogen taking care of a baby was still patently absurd, not totally credible.