Last month, Seth Rogen turned 32. That’s about the age that an overgrown boy starts taking on the responsibilities of a man, while sorely wishing he didn’t have to. In the amiably dirty comedy Neighbors, Rogen is Mac, a new father to an adorable baby daughter. Mac and his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne) are both happy to be parents, but a large part of them resists the idea that their lives need to change now. They met in college, and they’re still college kids at heart and in bed (though they seem to prefer sex everywhere in the house except the bed). Kelly stays at home with the baby while Mac drifts through a generic cubicle job, getting stoned on break whenever possible.
When the frat Delta Psi moves in next door to Mac and Kelly, the couple actually don’t object in principle. The guys seem friendly enough, if a bit too legendary for their epic parties. Mac and Kelly might co-exist peacefully with them, even attend their parties regularly, if they didn’t have to get up in the morning to go to work and look after the baby. They’re welcomed to the first-night blow-out, and they get blitzed (it’s a good thing the baby seems to sleep through the night easily). After that, though, it’s back to the grind, and when they call in a noise complaint on the second night, the frat leader Teddy (Zac Efron) is hurt. Not angry — just hurt.
The nice thing about Neighbors, which made me laugh pretty consistently, is that nobody is the good guy or the bad guy. The frat boys like their fun but aren’t terribly vicious. Mac and Kelly try to short-circuit the frat, and go too far on several occasions. It’s certainly a more good-natured comedy than the inept 1981 film of the same name. People talk to each other in this movie, and try to understand each other. The commercials emphasize the slapstick, but the verbal barbs, many of which sound improvised, keep a certain level of wit in play (my favorite, regarding a frat pledge wearing a blocky pair of camera-equipped glasses: “He looks like J.J. Abrams”). And there’s a useful symmetry in the notion that Mac and Kelly devolve to frat-like behavior themselves, while the frat boys have to embrace responsibility, or at least simulate it.
Comedies generally aren’t cinematically exciting. If they make us laugh, they don’t have to be. But more recent comedy directors like Edgar Wright, Wes Anderson, and Nicholas Stoller (who directed Neighbors) bring welcome visual brio. The party scenes in Neighbors have some of the candy-colored skankiness of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. As in his Get Him to the Greek, Stoller wants to make each scene lively and eye-catching, while within the engaging frame the actors seem to be given license to riff, to deepen bonds between characters — the conflicts as well as the affections are credible. Neighbors could have been a lazy beer-fart comedy in the Adam Sandler mold, but, like Teddy, it knows it has to work to earn that spot on the wall next to its ancestors.
Which, ultimately, it does. The original text, of course, is Animal House, which aside from its performances and a couple of sequences involving Belushi hasn’t aged all that well. There’s also Old School, which I have trouble recalling outside of Will Ferrell’s breakout work as an overgrown frat boy who gets a little too into it (I love his grief-stricken funeral tribute to an elderly frat bro: “You’re my boy, Blue!”). Neighbors seems to have more going on under the hood, including the post-Bridesmaids insight that women can be as debauched as men. The key to the movie is the big fight Mac and Kelly have over the fact that neither of them wants to be a responsible adult. Kelly doesn’t want to be the nagging wife familiar from every comedy (i.e. Leslie Mann in many of her husband Judd Apatow’s films), and so she isn’t. She agitates to be a person, not a type. She’s ridiculous, but so is everyone else, ranging from Lisa Kudrow as the headline-obsessed college dean to Hannibal Buress as the cop who keeps answering the noise complaints primarily because it seems to amuse him. Believable, individualized people and playful filmmaking are rare in big-studio American movies just now; we’ll take them where we find them.