The best comedies -- even the most ridiculous, raunchy, and foul-mouthed among them -- are successful because they contain at least the tiniest grain of human truth, a recognizable bit of emotion that its audience can connect with on some level. In the case of "Neighbors," the new comedy from Nicholas Stoller ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall"), the truth is that growing older scares the shit out of us, and that fear results in most of us needing to be dragged into maturity kicking and screaming all the way. Maybe that's a ludicrously high-minded way to begin talking about a movie that has stars Seth Rogen and Zac Efron engaging in a rubber dildo slap fight, but it's also the reason that scene ends up being as funny as it is.
Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne, "Bridesmaids") are new parents to an adorable six-month-old baby girl (I'd be inclined to say that using an infant to earn laughs so frequently is just Stoller pandering to his audience, but man is that kid cute). As the film begins, they've just moved into a new home in a nice, quiet suburban neighborhood. Though they both have anxieties about entering this new age of adulthood and domesticity, they both claim to be ok with letting go of the carefree days of their youth and accepting that their lives now revolve around the responsibility of being a parent But when a fraternity also moves into the neighborhood, they're worried that the inevitable barrage of non-stop partying will mean sleepless nights for them as well as their baby.
At first, the couple is concerned with appearing "cool" as they approach the frat's leaders, Teddy (Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco), with their concerns, bringing a joint with them as peace-offering and hoping to avoid being perceived as the boring old people across the street. It turns out their plan goes a little too well, and they end up being sucked into a drug-fueled night of partying with their new neighbors. Mac finds himself bonding with Teddy, and cements their newfound friendship with a promise to call Teddy directly before involving the police if there's ever a problem in the future. Of course, that promise is broken the very next night when Kelly and Mac call the cops after being kept awake by the rager outside, and Teddy and Pete decide to get even, setting the stage for all-out generational warfare.
The film's writers, Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien, show an appealing willingness to place blame at the feet of their protagonists. After all, if Mac and Kelly didn't break their word, they might have found a way to coexist in peace with their collegiate neighbors. This, in addition to adding some nuance to the frat characters -- it's clear that at their hearts, Teddy and Pete are both good guys -- goes a long way in keeping the character's increasingly outlandish behavior at least vaguely understandable. The film's ability to ground all the wackiness and endless dick jokes in a basic truthfulness is its greatest asset.
Byrne proves to be the film's MVP, showing she's every bit as capable of getting down and dirty as her male costars. It's nice to see her character treated as an equal partner in the hijinks instead of relegated to the role of nagging wife. In fact, the one major argument between Kelly and Mac is a result of her feeling like he's treating her as such. Kelly admits that during her days spent alone with only the baby for company, she's bored. As a result, she throws herself into the ensuing battle with even more fervor than her husband. It's an intriguing bit of shading to her character, and one that I wish had been explored even more. Rogen is also good, playing a variation of the traditional Seth Rogen role. He and Byrne play off one another well, and they make for remarkably believable couple. Efron is a surprise, stretching his admittedly limited skills to prove an appealing comedic presence while capably portraying Teddy's layers of doubt and wounded pride.
Stoller can allow his actors to engage too often in the improv-heavy Apatow brand of comedy, and these extended moments can grind the movie to a halt as the actors riff off one another with mixed results. But for the most part he keeps things moving, deserving praise for keeping his film to a trim 96 minutes, as well as injecting some welcome style through the many elaborate party sequences -- both traits that happily set his film apart from the static aesthetic and unwieldy runtimes that characterize too many modern comedies. While it doesn't reach the level of instant classic, his "Neighbors" sets an appreciably high bar for the rest of this summer's comedies to clear.