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'Neighbors' portrays fraternity antics with complex characters

Universal Pictures

By Natalie Gadbois, Senior Arts Editor
Published May 14, 2014

When the credits began to roll at the end of “Neighbors,” Nick Stoller’s (“Five Year Engagement”) ribald but surprisingly sharp satire on college Greek life, the college boy sitting next to me (I would say bro but I’ve been told I use that term too derogatorily) guffawed to his friends, “Yo, this movie got me inspired. Let’s get crazy tonight!” I don’t think he entirely understood the point of the film: a penis-laden, crass, over-the-top, but ultimately smart send-up of the value placed on wild youth.

Mac (Seth Rogen, “This Is the End”) and Kelly (Rose Byrne, “Insidious: Chapter 2”) are the archetypal young modern couple: he works in an office while still slipping out for an occasional joint, she stays at home with their baby daughter, feeling underwhelmed with the role life has handed her. They move into a pretty, colonial house in a pretty, colonial neighborhood, envisioning a Pleasantville-esque future. That’s when the Delta Psi brothers, led by their seemingly affable President Teddy (Zac Efron, “That Awkward Moment”) begin moving their bongs in next door. In typical slapstick comedy fashion, the film then follows Mac and Kelly’s initial attempts to prove their “coolness” to the college kids, before they decide to instead wage war on the frat — supposedly in the name of their baby’s sleep schedule, but really in an attempt to prove they aren’t missing out on those wild days.

The film trudges through overdone setups and revenge gimmicks (Christopher Mintz-Plasse has a massive penis! Teddy’s girlfriend is tricked into cheating on him!), but the real laughs come from the surprising frankness of the characters. While Rogen is constantly barking with his unique stoner-schlub bravado, it’s Byrne who steals the show, providing the brains and most of the furious drive behind their diabolical plots. In a sharp move, the pair calls out the very trope the movie seems to buy into: Kelly accuses Mac of constantly expecting her, the woman, to be the responsible one, to not resent their inevitable adulthood, while he gets to be goofy, immature, irrational — in his words, “Haven’t you ever seen a Kevin James movie?” It’s refreshing to see a film recognize the overdone “hot, supportive girl and funny but dumpy guy” pairing, and this kind of thinking rings throughout the script. Even Efron, while aptly (and “ab”ly) portraying the chant-leading, shirtless-grilling alpha male stereotype of a frat boy, lends Teddy more complexity — he knows he’s already peaking in life, but throws parties to avoid engaging with that knowledge. As he attends a job fair, where the more ambitious Delta Psi vice-President (Dave Franco, “Now You See Me”) is successfully schmoozing with the best, he realizes that his cultivated talents don’t stretch far beyond throwing weed-themed ragers and selling homemade dildos.

“Neighbors” knows it’s audience, and seems to often toe the line between outlandish humor and outright offense, but all the moving pieces are smarter than the eventual combination. Certain minor characters steal scenes, like Lisa Kudrow as the PR-obsessed university dean, or little Stella, the most adorable baby to ever grace the silver screen (not an exaggeration), but unlike many comedies the film isn’t outpaced by cameos or diversions. Anchored by Byrne, “Neighbors” nearly hits that sticky spot between farce and meaning — the center between immature frat boy antics and the steady realization that growing up isn’t so bad.