Neighbors is Animal House, but told through the perspective of Dean Wormer (John Vernon). It’s Old School, if that juvenile frat-guy comedy sympathized with Jeremy Piven’s hysterically oily and conniving Dean Pritchard. In other words, Neighbors cleverly presents the archetypal party-hungry college hooligans, but asks us to now side with the older, out-of-touch losers on the outside of the celebration, looking in.
And that’s exactly why the fresh, relatable comedy works as well as it does.
Nicholas Stoller also directs comedies that tend to avoid clear-cut “good guys” or “bad guys.” Kristen Bell’s bombshell wasn’t a bitch in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, so our allegiances often shifted between her and her sad-sack ex (played by Jason Segel). The longer The Five-Year Engagement stretched, the harder it was to know whose side to take in the marital squabbles between Segel and the beautiful Emily Blunt.
So even when the war escalates between the badly behaved members of the Delta Psi fraternity and the peace-seeking suburbanites of a once-quiet neighborhood, we rarely know which party’s most at fault. All we know for sure is the fact that the combat’s funny as hell.
Neighbors pulls off a bit of mature miscasting by asking Seth Rogen to play the “responsible” adult. He successfully sheds the slacker cape he usually adorns to play Mac, new dad and semi-hard worker who has sunk every penny he and his wife, Kelly (Rose Byrne), have into their new home. They’re setting up shop for their baby girl Stella (twins Elise and Zoey Vargas, giving the most adorable child performance I’ve seen on screen in decades), and are horrified when members of the Delta Si frat move in next door.
We feel their pain because Stoller takes the time to establish Kelly and Mac as a family – albeit one that’s still in its own infancy stages. The new couple don’t really want to full embrace the prospect of being parents (in an hilarious montage sequence, they think they can bring Stella to a rave, but tire themselves out wondering what to pack for baby’s night out on the town). Kelly and Mac, in a warped sense, see the frat as an opportunity to prove that they aren’t the square, old and invisible people they fear they are becoming. They can still hang with the new generation, swallowing mushrooms, passing bong hits, and crossing streams as you piss into a fountain.
Anyone who has tried to party for more than 48 hours straight knows that the lifestyle’s going to catch up, eventually, and sooner or later, a wedge is driven between Kelly, Mac and the boys of Delta Psi. That’s when Neighbors finds its wicked groove.
Do you know who is really funny in Nicholas Stoller’s Neighbors? Like, "steal the show" funny? Zac Efron. Oh, I can hear you bitching and moaning already. Save it. Efron uses every tool in his box to keep up with (and often ahead of) a fast-and-filthy talking Rogen as Neighbors works up a disgustingly funny lather. Stoller, in his editing room, cherrypicks some of the best ad libs from hysterical supporting cast members like Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz, Jerrod Carmichael and Jason Mantzoukas – who gets the comedy’s best line as a doctor with horrible timing.
Neighbors goes beyond the easy Geeks vs. Greeks, and can’t be dismissed as a one-joke comedy. Stoller actually could trim the run-time of Neighbors, as the back-and-forth between the warring parties goes from inspired to childish and more than a bit exhausting (particularly in the explosive finale). But the film has multiple, huge laughs. It plays extremely well with a crowd, particularly one that can be plugged in to the movie’s anarchistic rivalry. But that works against it, in a sense. Neighbors is worth your time, but it’s also one of those relentlessly dirty comedies that you’ll watch on cable months after you belly laughed through it with your friends and wonder what, exactly, was so hysterical.