Stepping out of Neighbors into the cold, calm, dick-joke-free real world, you might find yourself hit with a barrage of “But wait…” moments: “Why did they move into a new frat house just a month or two before the end of college?” “When was it established that she wanted to sleep with him?” “Where did that pledge come from?” “Who was that other guy?” “If he, then why?” “When did?” “How?” “What?” “Huh?!” Yeah, there are enough logical holes in Nicholas Stoller’s comedy to warrant an “Everything Wrong with Neighbors” gag trailer and a dozen or two angry message threads. But the tenability of a movie’s realism isn’t exactly on trial when it sells itself as the Seth Rogen comedy in which a baby eats a condom.
Neighbors eagerly liberates itself not only from the laws of basic reality or tight storytelling, but also from the rigid shackles of any one comic tone. We jump from a slice of life about new parents Mac and Kelly (Rogen and Rose Byrne) who aren’t quite ready to say goodbye to their youth instantly to a wild and wacky college farce about the fraternity one house over (led by Zac Efron and second banana Dave Franco), borrowing a lexicon from latter day National Lampoon. As the war picks up between these congenial neighbors-turned-close-quarters enemies, we’re invited into a back and forth of vicious, albeit loony, aggression, each maneuver to “get those fogeys/punks next door” escalating in hostility, danger, and independence from earthbound possibility. As we’re treated to this ceaseless exercise in human malignance, Neighbors peppers in episodes of cartoon-grade zaniness, macabre pathos, and absolute surrealism. And although it might not seem like all of these comic identities can exist in the same film, Neighbors has a special trick up its sleeve to make it all work: it’s funny. Never brilliant, and rarely all that fresh, but always funny.
The frat stuff plays broad, often saddling Efron’s sadomasochistic pseudo-villain, Franco’s vulnerable prick, and the pair’s gang of goons — a wily Christopher Mintz-Plasse and an effortlessly charming Jerrod Carmichael at the top of the heap — with the usual party flick shenanigans like dance-offs and flaming barrels of marijuana. The team of youngsters is at its best, though, when the standard routine is shirked for more peculiar fare, like an abstract non sequitur that has Franco demonstrating a bizarre biological skill, or a fractured history of drinking games as narrated through flashbacks by a passionate Efron.
A good deal of fun can be pinned on the usual assortment of physical gags, pop culture references (one extended bit plays on the film histories of Robert De Niro, Samuel L. Jackson, and Al Pacino to endearing results), and the goofball antics of supporting players like Ike Barinholtz (as Mac’s zealous, dimwitted pal). But Neighbors‘ secret weapon is Byrne, outshining the established comedic reputations of her co-stars with her performance as Kelly. Catapulted miles from the doldrums of straight-man-hood, Byrne tops even Rogen in awkward panache (watching her struggling to interact with the younger breed early on in the movie is delightful) and diabolical villainy alike — the very biggest laughs come from Byrne unleashing her furies or executing evil schemes. If Neighbors inspires any lasting impression, it should be a new appreciation for Byrne’s chops in the humor department.
Somehow, this farcical grab bag never feels lethally convoluted or overstuffed. While the film’s pacing does no great favors — we jump right into the principal conflict, which is a tough beat to sustain for so long — and a few abject narrative leaps keep the story from feeling tidy, these problems feel like a second priority. Even if some of the jokes feel strained or rehashed, if the characters are malleable, if the conceit is overcooked, or if there are too many plot holes to count… we’re laughing. So it’s working.