There’s a meaty subtext in Neighbors, a raunchy comedy about a fraternity led by Zac Efron and Dave Franco that wages war on the married couple (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) who lives next door. Look past all the penis jokes (this movie sets a record) and gross-out gags (lactating breasts in dire need of milking), and you’ll find an unexpectedly honest portrait of the moment in life — usually the early 30s — when we lose interest in the bacchanal pursuits of the young and embrace the quieter but equally rewarding pleasures of adulthood.
That’s not meant to imply there’s anything particularly thoughtful or serious about Neighbors, a movie filled with so many lewd sex toys they practically deserve their own screen credit. But director Nicholas Stoller ( Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement) keeps the 95-minute picture moving at a brisk pace (take that, Judd Apatow!), and screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien give their cartoonish characters unexpected depths and resources.
For example, in practically any other comedy of this kind, the character of the wife, Kelly, would have been relegated to a disapproving nag, asking her husband Mac to stop behaving like a child and make peace with the hooligans. But Byrne tears into the role with a ferocity she hadn’t displayed before, proving to be just as adept as the boys at wreaking havoc (a scene in which she tricks one of the frat boys to make out with his best bud’s girlfriend is a standout). Byrne is also the center of the movie’s subtle dramatic center, conveying the loneliness and boredom of a former career woman turned mom who doesn’t know what to do with herself now that she’s stuck at home watching over her newborn daughter. Her love for her child is never in question, but the film’s honest depiction of the difficulty of her transition is refreshing.
Rogen does what he normally does: Ingest a lot of drugs, crack wise and charm you with his shaggy-bear appeal. A lot of his lines sound ad-libbed (when he first sees the chiseled Efron in a tank top during move-in day, Mac says “He looks like something a gay guy made in a lab”). But Rogen gives a real performance as a father and husband momentarily seduced by how fun the crazy old days were who ultimately decides that stuff was all in the past, and these obnoxious college brats must be dispatched by whatever means necessary.
The most intriguing thing about Neighbors, though, is Efron, an actor who rose up from the Disney ranks and established a foothold as a dreamboat in romantic dramas and comedies. In Neighbors, Efron lets the darkness show: As the neighborhood feud grows out of control, and he threatens Mac by saying “I’m going to kill you,” the line is more chilling than funny, because Efron has done such a good job portraying a disappointed and scared young man who knows being president of his frat house will be the highlight of his life. As hard as he may try to hide it, he knows this will be as good as it gets, which is why the turf war means so much to him. Efron makes you believe he’s capable of anything. Neighbors is rude, brazen and merrily offensive, and the movie mines the homoerotic undertones of fraternities to fine (if lowbrow) comic effect. But Efron, of all people, gives the film a curious edge: Here is an actor who continues to surprise.