By NATHAN LERNER
In “Neighbors,” Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are a thirty-something married couple, who are transitioning into middle-class respectability. They own their own free-standing home, replete with a carefully manicured lawn, in a quiet, residential neighborhood and are raising an infant daughter.
Everything abruptly changes when Delta Psi Beta moves in next door. The school’s dean (Lisa Kudrow) has booted them off campus for a rambunctious incident, which ended with their house burning down.
Chapter president Teddy (Zac Efron) and his second banana, Pete (Dave Franco), proudly trumpet the traditions of their fraternity. Alas, this does not include brothers graduating with academic honors and going on to make valuable contributions to society. As we learn through faux archival footage, this fraternity claims bragging rights to such dubious accomplishments as inventing the toga party and beer pong. Undaunted by the fact that they are on probation, Teddy is intent on having the mother of all parties at semester’s end.
This nightmarish scenario sets up the dynamic of “Neighbors.” How will Mac and Kelly deal with this unwelcome intrusion into their well-structured life? The film offers a twist on the premise. Mac has a respectable job with a decent income, but basically he’s an emotionally arrested slacker. At work, he ignores imminent deadlines to take frequent, extended breaks, which enables him to smoke weed with his best friend, Jimmy.
In addition to being Mac’s enabler, Kelly is irresponsible in her own right. We learn that when Kelly’s best friend, Paula (Carla Gallo), calls and tells her about a rave that is about to happen, Kelly can’t find a babysitter on short notice. What’s her solution? Just bring her baby to the impromptu party.
Rather than asserting themselves as full-fledged adults and trying to set well-defined parameters for acceptable behavior with their new neighbors, Mac and Kelly take a different tact. They show up at the frat’s first party in the new neighborhood bearing gifts. It just happens to be a few doobies. Then, the couple decides to stick around and party hearty with these young miscreants. Meanwhile, their infant child is left unattended.
Clearly, despite being homeowners and parents, Mac and Kelly are ambivalent about being grown-ups. They are more intent on partying and showing off how cool they are than addressing the underlying problem.
Upon leaving the party, the couple forges a pact with their new buddy, Teddy. They promise Teddy that if the noise becomes too loud, they will notify him and allow him to abate the problem. No police will be involved and the fraternity’s status will not be jeopardized.
However, the first time that the frat blares their stereo system, Mac and Kelly call the police. Understandably, Teddy feels betrayed by this breach of their agreement, and an escalating battle between the homeowners and the frat boys ensues.
This film debuted as a work in progress at the SXSW Festival and elicited virtually universal critical praise. I am totally befuddled by this reaction.
The film represents a serious step backwards for Nicholas Stoller, the film’s director. Stoller previously helmed “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “The Five Year Engagement.” Both films included edgy humor. However, this was placed within the context of an engaging story line, tempered zaniness with moments of poignancy. The films were enhanced by a nice sense of pacing.
By contrast, “Neighbors” is a non-stop schlockfest. It relies on an adumbrated storyline, dominated by puerile, gross-out humor. The film consists of little more than a litany of set pieces. How much mileage can a film derive from studied contrasts between Teddy’s chiseled physique and Mac’s porcine form? Ditto for the repeated potty-mouthed exchanges between Mac and Kelly. The film is devoid of any narrative trajectory or sympathetic characters. The passive-aggressive couple is no better than the boorish frat boys. Mac is depicted vandalizing the frat house and fist-fighting with Teddy.
Moreover, only a few of the film’s vignettes are intrinsically funny. One includes a Robert DeNiro homage party. Brothers are titivated as memorable screen characters, including Travis Bickle and the belligerent father-in-law from the “Meet the Parents” franchise. It’s a funny moment that cinephiles will savor. However, a few isolated jocular moments are hardly enough to sustain a feature length comedy.
IF YOU GO
** R (for pervasive language, strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use throughout ) 91 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.