There is no concept that more pressingly codifies the aggressive and unyielding passage of time than Seth Rogen playing a father. The stoner burnout of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, the overgrown stoner man-child of The 40 Year Old Virgin and Pineapple Express, the self-reflexive overgrown stoner man-child of This is the End, all of it a career built on the ideals of preserving youth through his particular brand of hirsute giggly charm and marijuana-based bro comedy. It is disarming, then, to see him in Nicholas Stoller’s newest film Neighbors, settling down with Rose Byrne for an idyllic adulthood with an adorable child in tow. Rogen and Byrne are Marc and Kelly Radner, and have moved to a cozy new home in a beautiful neighborhood by the local college, and are content with their new life and their new digs. That is until they discover the tenants moving into the vacant house next door. Hardbodies carrying oversized novelty Greek letters begin to load couches and party equipment into the house, the telltale signs of a stereotypical fraternity. It is a simple enough tension, the respectable grown-ups looking for peace and quiet juxtaposed against the sort of out of control super-bros who consider Jersey Shore to be career research. At first, it’s all smiles and harmony, as the frat brothers, led by Teddy (Zach Efron) and his second in command Pete (Dave Franco), are taken by their child and their weed-based peace offering during their first meeting. This harmony is destined to be short-lived, and the first wild rager of the semester rolls by and the beleaguered family calls the cops on the frat in a bout of sleep deprivation, an action Teddy and co. take none too kindly. War is declared, and an escalating series of pranks commences, pushing each to their breaking point.
Ten years ago, Rogen would have been one of the frat boys, harassing Steve Carell or Vince Vaughn or Owen Wilson or something. There may be some cognitive dissonance in the change of archetype, but such is the case with the inexorable movement of time. Rogen generally comports himself well in the new role, and is helped immensely by the always charming Rose Byrne, this time free to use her normal Aussie accent. Zac Efron remains in a bit of a limbo state transitioning away from his High School Musical and 17 Again days, and Neighbors is certainly a deliberate cut away from his teen heartthrob roots. This does not mean that he keeps a shirt on for the majority of the film; far from it. There are constituents to please and marketing of which to take advantage, but Stoller and crew work this into the fabric of his character. As the most pointedly commonplace sort of character type, Efron does a good job of making it clear that nothing matters to him beyond the next party and becoming a frat house legend without shortchanging the mounting storm clouds of adulthood looming just beyond the horizon of his Senior year. Particularly effective as his second is Dave Franco, who is deftly carving out his own little niche alongside his brother. Dave does not have the same kind of energy as his older brother, but through this performance and films like 21 Junp Street or Warm Bodies, he has created an identity of his own.
One of the better aspects of Neighbors is the relationship between Rogen and Byrne’s characters. So often in films like these the female half of the couple is marginalized, often representing an overly moralistic nagging role or never having the opportunity to join in on the fun. Here, the couple are very much equals, both fully committed to their charge of getting even. While the focus of the proceedings (and certainly the poster) is squarely on Rogen and Efron, Byrne’s presence is by no means trivial. The dynamic between Efron and his frat brothers (specifically Franco) is similar, and while some of the lesser seen brothers might not have much of anything to do, there are quite a few notable faces in the crowd who get their fair share of time and development. This film is more of an ensemble comedy than its trailers and marketing materials may have let on.
Of course, one of the requirements of a good comedy is to be consistently funny, and it is at this that Neighbors falters. Once it gets into the meat and the prank war between the family and the frat intensifies, Stoller and co. run their ideas dry surprisingly quickly. The scenarios do not differentiate themselves enough, and while they escalate in absurdity appropriately, they lose their luster by the middle of the second act. The result is a movie that does some interesting things, and is at its most intriguing when it takes its characters out of their stereotypical comfort zones. Stoller also manages to inject artistry into the production design and cinematography; the wild party scenes are especially chaotic and well-shot, with bursts of color and disorientation. It is a step above what one would expect from a standard comedy, that is for sure. However, Neighbors remains a film that is inconsistent when it counts and does not provide the level of enjoyment that has been a trait of Stoller’s previous efforts. The film has its moments, but those moments are too few and far between to truly get excited over the final product.