Frat boy humor in every sense, “Neighbors” has all the raunchiness of the product that continuously pours out of the Apatowian school of comedy—and then some. As such it will no doubt enjoy a long life in the dens of dissipated fraternity houses all over America. But in this case it also happens actually to be about a frat, Delta Psi Beta. Its local chapter moves into a house next door to young married couple Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) and cause an incessant ruckus that annoys them and, presumably, their infant daughter Sally (twins Elise and Zoey Vargas) even though she seems to sleep through anything.
When the couple, trying desperately to act cool and failing miserably, ask Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), the chapter’s president, and his ever-loyal veep Pete (Dave Franco) to tone it down, the guys initially respond in a phony conciliatory fashion, even inviting the fogies to join their open-house fling (leaving Sally asleep alone, it seems—though they prominently display their baby monitor), but things don’t improve; and after Mac calls the cops on the new arrivals, the result is an all-out war between the two sides, each trying to outdo the other in malicious destructiveness and humiliation.
The result is raucous but not especially funny unless you enjoy such sights as guys propelled into the ceiling by strategically-situated airbags or making “personal” dildos for sale to campus coeds. The latter is symptomatic of a barrage of gags involving penises; this is another dick-centric comedy. But there’s plenty of other elements to offend, not least a passing joke about infant HIV that comes out of nowhere and goes back to the same place, and an extended sequence involving a breast pump that probably represents the nadir of the movie’s tastelessness (though, to be fair, the competition is strong).
Another aspect of the movie that might have you avert your eyes is Rogen’s proclivity to disrobe at every conceivable opportunity. He appears to have picked up the mantle in this respect that Will Ferrell once carried but has now set down, and frankly it’s no improvement. As if the times he went au naturel in the course of the plot weren’t sufficient, the makers felt the need to add a postscript in which he takes off his shirt yet again.
Otherwise Rogen does his usual shtick—this isn’t so much a performance as a frantic stand-up routine—and he brings co-star Byrne down to his level; their frenetic banter often sounds like really bad improv, or perhaps that feeling results from the fact that you don’t want to believe anybody really wrote this stuff. They’re given a couple of best friends—Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (Carla Gallo) who are divorced but come together again by becoming a part of Mac and Kelly’s schemes. They come across even shriller than the Radners, who also have another confederate at one point—a DPSIB pledge named Ryan (Craig Roberts) who appears suddenly when required by the plot mechanics and is called by a nickname it would be inappropriate to give here. His abrupt introduction is merely the worst example of how shoddy the movie’s narrative structure is.
Far more intriguing than Mac and Kelly, in any event, are the frat boys Teddy and Pete played by Efron and Franco. There are some very dark aspects to the characters that suggest interesting directions the script might have taken but didn’t dare to. One might observe that had it done so, “Neighbors” might have entered the truly unsettling territory inhabited by the books of Thomas Berger—who coincidentally wrote a novel also called “Neighbors,” made into a movie with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd that didn’t do it justice. Still, for all the screenplay’s tip-toeing around what makes Teddy and Pete really tick, they’re by far the more fascinating side of the equation here, and Efron and Franco the most watchable people on display. By contrast Christopher Mintz-Plasse, as another of the house seniors, and Lisa Kudrow, as a particularly self-interested college dean, are surprisingly ineffectual.
“Neighbors” tries to compensate for its general grossness with prolonged inserts of Sally (indeed, the movie begins with an extended gag involving her and ends with credits in which she’s prominently featured). The Vargas twins are undoubtedly cute as a button, but incessantly showcasing them for repeated “aww” moments is pretty shameless. But that’s typical of the method of director Nicholas Stoller, cinematographer Brandon Trost and editor Zene Baker, who elsewhere resort to hyperkinetic, jagged cutting in the extended rants involving Rogen and Byrne, as well as a surrealistic, oversaturated look in some of the party scenes—the effect of which is unhappily reminiscent of “Spring Breakers.” Just from the standpoint of visual style, the result is pretty much a mess.
One-upsmanship stuff like “Neighbors” is hardly unusual on screen, and it’s been done far better in the past—Laurel and Hardy’s “Them Thar Hills” and “Tit for Tat” are still classics of their kind, rightfully so. And it has to be admitted that this example of back-and-forth mayhem is at least marginally preferable to the suburbanite-frat warfare of Adam Sandler’s abominable “Grown Ups 2.” But that’s a bar set so low that an ant could barely pass beneath it. This is a coarse and sloppy gross-out comedy made all the worse by the occasional moments that suggest it could have been something more.