Like so, so many other comedies released these days, Neighbors is about people in their 20s (or maybe their early 30s) having trouble coming to grips with the notion of adulthood. Its unique angle on this now well-trod comedic ground is its wider focus -- three main characters, rather than one, are coping with growing up and they are at different phases in the process.
Mac and Kelly, played by Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, are first-time parents moving in to their first home. As you might expect, caring for a newborn while trying to maintain some sense of normalcy and individual agency is a major challenge for the pair -- especially with their single and childless friends tempting them with a night out. And that only gets worse when a raucous fraternity moves in next door. Enter the third character struggling with the prospect of adulthood, the president of said frat Teddy, played by Zac Efron.Teddy is dimwitted but ambitious. Intent on throwing the rager to end all ragers so that he can end up immortalized in the fraternity's Hall of Fame before he graduates, he sets about building momentum with a series of debaucherous soirees. Drugs, drinks, loud music, sexual promiscuity -- this frat has everything that Animal House made cool and that 22 Jump Street so expertly mocked. And those things are problematic for Mac and Kelly.
The twist -- and many of the laughs -- stem from the fact that Mac and Kelly don't deal with the problem as most adults would. They are still young enough to see shades of their recent past in the frat brothers and to crave that type of freedom. They are still immature enough to desire acceptance -- to want to be seen as hip even with a newborn in tow.
That's how Rogen ends up stuffing his face full of mushrooms at the frat and doing a Michael Keaton Batman impression while Efron does his best Christian Bale in the wee hours of the morning. Reality, though, has a way of destroying fragile alliances, and when the frat's incessant partying becomes overwhelming, Mac and Kelly do what most adults would: call the cops. That decision pits Teddy against the parents next door and propels the film in to its next phase, an escalating prank war in which Mac and Kelly aim to have the frat evicted.
As a result, Neighbors does have its moments. Having the entire frat pay the bill for a flooded basement by having plaster casts of their nether regions turned in to -- ahem -- "pleasure devices" is an inspired gag. But the moments between gags like these, and there are more than a few good ones, are awfully thin. Growing up isn't easy, but none of these three characters really embodies what makes it hard. They mainly seem willfully selfish, and incapable of learning or growing.
Comparisons to Knocked Up are inevitable. In that film, Rogen played a character more like Teddy who all of a sudden had to be more like Mac. He ends up far surpassing his future counterpart, which is a big part of what makes Knocked Up such a superior film even as it peddles in the same themes and character types. Director Nicholas Stoller -- himself a close colleague of Knocked Up director Judd Apatow -- is capable of quite a bit better. Were the state of film comedies not so poor at present, his latest film would feel a lot more disappointing than it is.