It would be wrong to pretend the new film Neighbors isn’t exactly what it appears to be: A raunchy comedy of ill manners that celebrates the frat-boy lifestyle even while wagging its finger at that party-all-the-time behavior. But it would also be unfair not to point out that the film is also something more than that.
As the film opens we meet Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne), a young married couple still marveling at the adult lives that seemingly sprang up around them while they slept. They have a baby! And a house! And obligations! How did all this happen? If they’re happy and appropriately responsible, they also know they’re playing roles that they haven’t fully grown into.
All that is upended with the arrival of a college fraternity that buys the vacant house next door in their quiet suburban neighborhood. The ludicrously handsome frat president, Teddy (Zac Efron), represents everything they don’t want their baby daughter exposed to. And yet, even as Teddy’s all-night parties keep Mac and Kelly awake and contemplating a noise complaint, those sex-drug-and-loud-music soirees are also a temptation, and a siren call to their not-quite-forgotten youth.
The text of Neighbors is a comedy of escalating revenge: Mac floods the frat’s basement. Kelly tries to break up the group by inspiring Teddy’s girlfriend’s to cheat on him with another member. Teddy’s brothers, meanwhile, steal the airbags out of Mac’s sensible Subaru. They hold a fund-raiser on their front lawn, selling items that are decidedly not lemonade and cookies. They seduce their other neighbors with acts of charity. And the parties get louder, and louder….
That’s all funny stuff on its own terms, but the film’s secret weapon is its subtext. Rogen and Byrne, both skilled comic actors, neatly suggest the plight of people who can appreciate the rewards of adulthood while still pining slightly for their heady past days of irresponsibility. And next door, Efron plays Teddy as a moody little creep plagued by a sneaking suspicion that nothing good is waiting for him after college. To him, Mac and Kelly aren’t the enemy – graduation is.
In director Nicholas Stoller’s best work to date – writing The Five-Year Engagement, directing Forgetting Sarah Marshall – he’s found ways to spelunk the cavernous insecurities of full-grown adults, mining their fears and emerging from the darkness with nuggets of comic gold. This film joins that list, and is in many ways the strongest example of that form.
And yet, it’s still a movie that features a house with a two-story bong. When the characters get really hungry after smoking all that illegal weed, the film lets them have their cake and eat it too.