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Movie review: 'Neighbors' opens the summer season of must-see comedies

Neighbors

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"NEIGHBORS"-- 3 STARS

Seth Rogen and Zac Efron star in "Neighbors," the new #1 movie in America.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Each summer movie season lately has been kind enough (well, sometimes) to grace us with at least one must-see, bell cow R-rated comedy that aims to earn mainstream success. Ever since this website’s first summer in existence back in 2010 with my review of “Get Him to the Greek,” this annual trend has been well documented. In that review, I described the breakthrough of the Farrelly brothers in the late 90’s, the limited cult success of Kevin Smith, and how then, in 2010, the market was cornered by two hitmakers, Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips, each with relatively few blemishes on their resumes at the time.

Fast forward four years and the tables have turned. Both hitmakers have spun out and crashed in some way. Phillips peaked with 2009’s “The Hangover” and nosedived with two straight lackluster dead-horse-beating sequels in 2011 and 2013 and the abysmal “Due Date” in between. Apatow had the Midas touch for about five years as producer and director, but since 2010, the duds have outnumbered the hits with poor returns for “Wanderlust,” “Zookeeper,” “The Five-Year Engagement,” and his own “This is 40.” If it wasn’t for being attached to “Bridesmaids” and “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” the creative tree of connected writers, directors, creators, and performers would be severely wilting.

One of those Apatow disciples is Nicholas Stoller, the director of “Get Him to the Greek” and this year’s new hit “Neighbors.” Stoller came onto the scene with widely-received “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” but has struggled to match that success with the weak sequel “Greek” and the tedious aforementioned “Five-Year Engagement.” Armed with the hilarious combination of Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, Stoller has now hit a new peak for his vitae.

That said, the peak occupied by any R-rated comedy isn’t very high and far from snow-capped among the clouds of cinema greatness. Rarely do movies like “Neighbors” create any watershed or bedrock. In terms of peaks and heights, let’s go ahead and just call “Neighbors” your new favorite sledding hill or deluxe tree house. Besides, that’s not the “high” this film is looking for anyway, if you get my drift. The target is decidedly, and rightfully, low-brow.

Seth Rogen and “Bridesmaids” Aussie Rose Byrne play first-time parents Mac and Kelly Radner. They are college sweethearts and loving parents in over their head with a giggling infant daughter named Stella. They have just sunk all of their money into a nice house in the suburbs when they soon observe a boisterous fraternity has just claimed the house next door. Their new neighbors are the men of Delta Psi Beta, led by studly fraternity president Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron and his abs) and the vice president brains of Pete Regazolli (the ageless David Franco).

When the boys of Delta Psi Beta do what fraternities do best, which is “rock ‘n roll all night and party everyday” (or whatever the cool hip-hop version of that is in 2014 for these Millennials), the Radners and their baby toss and turn through sleepless nights of loud music and ruckus from next door. Hoping get in cool with the kids and regain a little bit of their own youth back, Mac and Kelly attempt to come over as nice, hip neighbors and party with the Delta Psi gang. They seemingly hit it off with Teddy and reach an understanding as neighbors to come to each other if things are too much with the promise to not to involve the police.

Once Mac and Kelly can’t take it anymore, they indeed call the cops who inform Teddy and Delta Psi that their neighbors made the call. That bust starts the advertised shenanigans of a turf war between Delta Psi and the Radners that escalates to elaborate schemes, pranks, and plans from both sides to rattle the other’s cage. Many of the gags that are winning over audiences in the trailers are present and in full glory. Beyond that, “Neighbors” succeeds as one comedy where not all of the good jokes are in the previews. Plenty of incidents and laughs are unrevealed treats and laugh-out-loud winners. To its credit, the film keeps a brisk pace with the comedy and doesn’t make you wait too long between smiles.

However, in attempt to spread its wings beyond the obvious array of college, toilet, and sex humor, the finished product is dragged down by clichéd parenting/marriage woes for the Radlers and frat-sized sibling rivalry weirdness from Reddy and Pete. While those lags are disguised by the pacing and likable acting, “Neighbors” has its share of missed attempts, but the makes far outnumber the misses in my opinion.

Seth Rogen, even though he tries to put on the father character costume on here, is still a walking and somewhat redundant fat pothead joke. As the victim of most of the pranks and physical comedy, his signature cackle is not as noticeable and is replaced by frantic screw-up errors as a dad and husband and plenty of solid one-liners. I’ll admit, with Rogen now over 30, this married father version of his high slacker act works for him here. I’m not saying he’s the next Jack Lemmon straight man. I’m just saying he doesn’t overdue the manchild-ness and ruin the movie like he has had the tendency to do in the past.

The same can be said in another way for Zac Efron. This central part could have been a dud as the dunce “himbo” foil to Rogen or relegated to “black hat” villain territory. Think the one-dimensional, but still effective Ted McGinley in “Revenge of the Nerds.” By contrast, Zac relishes his chance to play a very likeable and laughable alpha male. I was a big fan of his smooth operator skills in “That Awkward Moment” earlier this year and, as “American Pie 2” showed us in 2001, some guys has have a stronger force than others. He’s not as good in “Neighbors” as he was in “The Awkward Moment,” but the added extra dimensions of charm beyond the douchebag exterior are appreciated.

“Neighbors” does exactly what it’s supposed to do as a raunchy summer comedy. Stoller and company deliver the prerequisite scale of penis jokes, fat jokes, hazing jokes, prolific drug use, sexual conquest, alcohol abuse, loud music, and dumb females that you would expect from a college setting. It will score with young people and alienate plenty of folks who are just like the Radners or older that don’t get this generation. That’s fine and good, because both audiences will still find plenty to laugh at. You’ll either laugh with them or at them. Either way, they get you.

LESSON #1: THE GIVE AND TAKE OF NEIGHBORLY RELATIONSHIPS—Anyone who’s ever had neighbors, from the small scale of a college dorm to the larger scale of a nice and tidy community of homeowners gets this easy lesson of this game. It doesn’t take a fraternity next door to see this outside of the film. Between friendly or unfriendly neighbors, there’s a pendulum swinging between asserting yourself and getting your way and doing just enough compromise to be accommodating and acquiescent. There is an expected decorum to this relationship, but there are also invisible lines that get crossed all the time that set off conflicts from both sides. Stick to the golden rule and you’ll be fine.

LESSON #2: REACHING THAT POINT OR AGE WHEN YOU CAN’T PARTY LIKE YOU USED TO—Face it. We all are only in our twenties for a decade. Plenty of courageous and untethered people start their twenties early and push them to last another decade beyond turning 30. No matter what, there’s a wall coming in the future where you can’t smoke, drink, dance, or hit it hard like you used to. Sometimes that wall is self-made in the form of marriage, parenthood, a career, or other grown-up responsibilities. Other times, that wall gets built for you by changing trends, increasing irrelevance, or changing tolerances. There is that point where it’s not that you don’t have the spirit to party, it’s that the youth of the present doing the majority of the partying do it differently than you did, making you obsolete.

LESSON #3: PARENTING IS A DIFFERENT PARTY IN LIFE—In an attempt to side with the Radlers, much of this film plays like a first-time parents romantic comedy that happens to take place during a college movie like “Old School.” On the family side of the fence, there are an equal amount of jokes involving sex, breastfeeding, and more to the hot tubs and raves on the frat side. Naturally, predictably, and piggy-backing off of Lesson #2, Mac and Kelly learn that parenting is their new party in life and one they should be welcome to host. They’re allowed to miss the college days they fondly remember, but they get a new enjoyment that’s worthwhile and more satisfying that great buzzes and momentary highs.