In Neighbors, Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) buy a house on a quiet Los Angeles street. They have a newborn named Stella. Without quite knowing how, they’ve become adults — and their anxiety is the foundation for all the comedy in this movie, which is about a war between the Radners and a fraternity that moves in next door. But it devotes its opening 15 minutes to a sketch of domestic unease.
The couple attempts to have sex, but he can’t with the baby in the room and apologizes. “Baby, I nearly came!” she says in her robust Australian accent. As he goes off to his cubicle job, Byrne gives her good-bye a flash of panic that registers a 5.3 on the New Mommy Scale — she spends her days bored. They spend 30 funny seconds debating whether to take the baby to a nightclub, and a frantic montage collecting infant paraphernalia ends with them collapsed, asleep at the front door. This is 32.
The battle against the fraternity and its all-night ragers, which begin almost instantly, only compounds the couple’s defensiveness. The noise is an affront to their daughter, but their own disapproval is an affront to who they used to be. Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien’s script grounds a juvenile, predictable premise in palpable stress. It might have been easy to make the Radners two or three generations older, to have the fraternity get on Tom Hanks and Helen Hunt’s nerves. But the decade that separates the Radners and their new streetmates puts them in a weird new spot: How do we convey authority and keep our cool?
A version of that question usually gets asked on sitcoms. After a few seasons baby shows up, and the show falls apart. Up All Night, which featured Christina Applegate and Will Arnett, was about feeling cool while being a parent, and by the time it was canceled it felt like something that had been on for 10 years. (It was barely two.) The Radners are too young for a conventional midlife crisis, and this is one of the few recent movies about the allergy of the transition into clear adulthood. Rogen has overtaken Adam Sandler as the Hulk Hogan of “I don’t wanna grow up” comedy. I don’t know that Sandler is ever wrestling with that decision. But Rogen’s stardom comes almost entirely from the issue of whether he’ll stay in or tap out.
The prevailing question in Rogen’s homosocial universe used to be, “Dude, are we still friends?” He and Evan Goldberg wrote and directed a rough, gloriously strange apocalypse epic on the subject: This Is the End. It concludes in the hereafter, so one assumes it’s their last word on the subject. Neighbors aims that concern inward. “Am I still cool?” feels like the final frontier of the Rogen experience — whatever it means for Rogen, with his stoned Fozzie Bear voice and code-jockey carriage, to be cool. It’s smart of Cohen, O’Brien, and the director, Nicholas Stoller, to focus that worry. The concern isn’t whether Mac and Kelly should reproduce, marry, or domesticate. It’s what having chosen to do so means. The appearance of the fraternity just exacerbates the doubt. Rogen’s now adjacent to the frat house that, as recently as last summer, he lived in.
The film could have dropped the usual temptations next door — a gang of blonde sexpots, say. Neighbors is cleverer than that. It’s Zac Efron and Dave Franco, instead. They play Teddy and Pete, the alphas at Delta Psi Beta, and seeing them bare-chested and in tight T-shirts turns Mac’s stomach. He gets a load of Teddy’s arms and compares them to “two huge, veiny dicks.” (May Rogen’s mix of penis envy and phallophilia never subside.)
Neighbors is one of those blank-from-hell thrillers — Pacific Heights, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The Temp, The Fan, The Crush — done as a prank comedy. Mac and Kelly show up at one party to complain about the rumpus (this time with a baby monitor and all their pot) and wind up drinking and dancing until dawn. Teddy’s only request is that if the parties are too loud, the Radners call him first and not the police. The request goes unheeded and Delta Psi Beta retaliates, then so do the Radners. Air bags are hilariously redeployed. Basements are flooded. A freshman pledge is hired to become a mole. A futile appeal is made to the college’s dean (a witheringly droll Lisa Kudrow). And, in one particularly well shot and edited sequence, Kelly hatches a plot to put Pete in bed with Teddy’s girlfriend.
That scheme unfolds at one of the fraternity’s parties, which, like all of the bashes in the film, has been slathered in blacklight paint and shot in the dark. They have a feverish nightmare quality that puts them more in the realm of music videos and surrealism. They’re not among the great blowouts in the movies, like Animal House, Road Trip or Old School, or 21. They don’t have the sustained energy of Can’t Hardly Wait or the first House Party. But they have great orchestration. You can follow the action, and the camera knows where to look. Stoller is managing the chaos so that, as Kelly’s plot unfolds, there’s some suspense.
Once upon a time, these parties would have been soundtracked to rock and roll. But when Teddy and Mac have a dance-off they do so to remixed hip-hop and pop hits. Black culture inflects and infects the entire movie. When Delta Psi guys say “psi,” they elongate the i until it resembles the way someone like Ice Cube used to say “east side”: so that it has about four syllables. The Delta guys “hootie hoo” when a police car approaches. And when Mac, Kelly, and Mac’s coworker Jimmy (the comedian Ike Barinholtz) make some crank calls one night, Jimmy ends his Barack Obama impersonation with a last-minute n-word sign-off.
He says it again later in the movie, and it’s the first time I’ve heard a white character dare to do this without all of the air going out of the movie. You can see Barinholtz asking what he can get away with, and it’s alarming that he manages it (he’s uncomfortably funny). This feels like the breaching of a dam that’s going to break. The word is used in the rap music on film soundtracks. It’s only a matter of time until it starts coming out of white mouths as casually and unself-consciously as it flies from black ones. Neighbors is testing the waters of propriety.
There are black actors here. The comedian Hannibal Buress gets some laughs as the neighborhood cop, and Jerrod Carmichael is the fraternity’s lone black member, a loopy dingbat named Garf. But all the racial tweaking is done for the white characters. Mercifully, it’s Franco’s runty jerk who can do a penile party trick and not Garf. As much as the movie is obviously about a transition into adulthood, it’s also a subtle test of the perceptible shift in how racial norms have expanded in the last 10 years.
But it’s generational uncertainty that dominates the movie, and, generously, it falls upon both genders and both houses. Kelly is as worried as Mac about losing her edge. As the fight with the fraternity escalates, she and Mac actually have an argument about who has to be the responsible one when they both want to be Kevin James — the schlub whose messes are cleaned up by the sexy spouse. But Byrne is required to stay with Rogen for most of the movie. She’s not as nimble a comedian as he is, though she keeps up and is a better reactor to nonsense. Propriety is her tonal undercard.
One of the great surprises of Neighbors is both the gentle way with which it handles a nimrod party animal like Teddy and how good Efron is at playing him. Some of the stress of this movie is in what it’s like to be so proximate to someone so physically arresting. It isn’t that he exudes sex, sexuality, or sexiness. He’s like a Ken doll that way: an anatomical specimen who’s “hot.” He doesn’t yet have the charisma you need for huge stardom. You don’t like him the way you’re supposed to like a Kevin Costner or Matthew McConaughey or Will Smith. Efron doesn’t project that kind of goodness or need. But maybe obtuse indecency is a workable alternative. Look at a Bradley Cooper.
In some ways the movie comedy has emerged from Judd Apatow’s interest in awkwardness and outcasts. Rogen came from Apatow’s school and is now making better, more astringent and complicated comedies about youth and fraternity. There would previously have seemed to be no sincere place in them for the Efrons of the world. (Franco is welcome only because he mocks himself.) But that appears to be changing.
When Efron and Rogen have a conversation through Batman impersonations (Christian Bale for Efron; Michael Keaton for Rogen), it’s amusing in part because you didn’t think Efron had this kind of amusement in him. The movie comes to like Teddy; too much, I’d say. But in doing so, it sweetens both its stars. Watching them stand together shirtless toward the end of the movie leaves you strangely happy. You’re no longer watching bromance. You’re watching two actors surprised to discover something more meaningful: brotherhood.