A hard-partying frat moves next door to new parents who graduated from the same college (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) in “Neighbors,” a new comedy from director Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Get Him to the Greek,” “The Five Year Engagement”). Rogen and Byrne are worried about noise, and rightly so, as the frat boys are planning to throw an end-of-the-year party of epic proportions and earn a spot on the frat house wall.
The reluctant adults meet their new neighbors with pot as a welcome-to-the-neighborhood present, and proceed to spend the evening partying with them while their infant daughter sleeps next door. This early detente goes south quickly when the frat’s late night partying on weeknights finally prompts a call to the police. War is declared, pranks and counter-pranks escalate, with the adults proving themselves no more mature than the frat boys.
There are two movies competing for attention in this messy framework, which is only 97 minutes long, but feels longer. This could easily have been “National Lampoon’s Animal House” inside out, and in fact the frat is a Delta House, albeit with different Greek letters after the delta, and that would have been funnier than what ended up on screen. “Animal House” remains the gold standard of shock comedies, and they haven’t measured up here. Drunken bad behavior often results in funny movie shenanigans, but something else ought to be going on. (And in “Animal House” the issue is the right to be drunk and stupid, not being drunk and stupid.)
But “Neighbors” also screams to be a comedy about coping with impending maturity, which the Cahiers du Cinema crowd would say is the current theme in American film comedy. Certainly Adam Sandler movies, “The Hangover” and its sequels and Judd Apatow all toil in that particular field. “Neighbors” in fact flirts with this theme, but has little staying power.
Zac Efron plays the demented frat chapter president with a demented glee we haven’t seen out of him before, and he’s fun to watch. He shares the heavy lifting with scene-stealing twins Elise and Zoey Vargas, as Rogen and Byrne’s baby. “Neighbors” all the laughs they can provide. As the parents, Rogen and Byrne yell and mug their way through one obviously improvised scene after another in increasingly desperate attempts to be funny. You’re more likely to wonder what the nearly omnipresent joints are laced with.
“Neighbors” seems to think it’s a shock comedy, and it does merit its R-rating. But despite a genuinely odd twist on the Obligatory D**k Shot, this is comparatively tame stuff by the standards of the genre. There is plenty of bad language, some nudity and LOTS and lots of drinking and drug use, but this is a movie that’s oddly unwilling to push the envelope. In fairness (spoiler alert) it might be noted that Efron’s character is stockpiling enough fireworks to launch a medium-sized ground assault, reasonably leading the audience to expect a pyrotechnic finale along the lines of “Project X,” though major explosions never materialize.
And the same rule applies to shock comedies as every other comedy: it has to be funny. Assuming you’re sufficiently amused by lots of scenes of people altering their consciousness with drugs and alcohol, mission accomplished. Otherwise, you might wish the filmmakers had spent more time writing this movie than improvising it. There are enough pop culture references to fuel trivia night at the popular college bar, and a few good laughs do break up the tedium. But bottom line, “Neighbors” isn’t epic enough for a frat house wall. This isn’t your father’s “Animal House,” but that would have been funnier.
"Neighbors" is now showing at theaters across the Capital District, including The Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, The Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8, the Spectrum 7 on Delaware Avenue in Albany, The Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13, The Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, The Bow Tie Cinemas Movieland in Schenectady and The Rotterdam Square Cinema.