Smart casting can elevate even the most yawn-inducing plot. “Neighbors” is a raucous case in point.
The plot line of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” director Nicholas Stoller’s latest film reads like a dusty rehash of “Old School” and its ilk: A young couple, parents of an adorable baby girl, are forced into suburban battle after a wild fraternity moves in next door.
What makes that story a success on the big screen is a cast that includes Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne and Dave Franco; several genuinely laugh-out-loud moments; a fast pace (just 96 minutes); and a go-for-broke vibe that consistently surprises.
The result is a film that does not quite attain greatness, but certainly entertains, and provides as many laughs as any comedy so far this year.
Fresh off his debut film as a (co-)director, the anarchic and brilliant “This is the End,” Rogen and “Bridesmaids” co-star Byrne are Mac and Kelly, a young married couple with a newborn daughter and a house they have sunk their savings into. Mac and Kelly, like many couples dealing with the onset of a mortgage and a new mouth to feed, are reasonably contented – emphasis on reasonably – with their domestic status.
When a moving van pulls up next door and members of a fraternity (and their young pledges, all bearing names unprintable in a daily newspaper) pour out, Mac and Kelly decide to quickly lay the groundwork, and demonstrate their coolness.
They are taken aback by the charming president and vice president of Delta Psi, Teddy and Pete, played, respectively, by Efron and Franco. When Mac and Kelly end up at a frat party – baby monitor in hand – they feel a rush of blood that brings them back to younger days.
The friendship does not last long, however, and soon an all-out war develops, leading to marital discord, threats of expulsion, and lots of Rogen-in-pain.
Rogen and Byrne are gleefully dorky, wonderfully portraying a couple that are more than aware their cool factor is just about gone, but remain desperate to hold on to some semblance of their former lives — chomping mushrooms, preparing to hit a rave, offering a clandestine joint to the new neighbors.
Ike Barinholtz (“The Mindy Project”) steals almost every scene he is in as Mac’s best friend, while Franco and the other Delta Psis give fine performances. (McLovin, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, pops up every so often to little effect.) But the film’s most surprisingly effective comedic performance comes from Efron.
“High School Musical” seems a long time ago for an actor who has made some ambitious choices, some moderately successful (“At Any Price,” “Me and Orson Welles”), some most certainly not (“The Paperboy,” “Parkland”). In “Neighbors,” Efron gives his best performance, demonstrating an admirable ability to laugh at himself, and his matinee idol looks.
Efron and Rogen are as likable an onscreen duo as previous Rogen foils James Franco and Jonah Hill, and they make “Neighbors” a strong comeback for director Stoller following the dreary “The Five-Year Engagement.”
The film has great fun with the generation gap between 30-something Rogen and the college-aged Efron, from their prototypical Batmans (Efron is, of course, a Christian Bale guy, while Rogen is all about Michael Keaton) to their ways of getting the word out regarding a mega-party (social media for Efron, fliers for Rogen).
Some of the strongest moments of humor are dialogue-driven, but there are enough gross-out gags to qualify “Neighbors” as an ideal entry in the children-of-Apatow genre. Note that the film includes a woman being, err, milked, a baby playing with a condom, and enough sex toys to make the janitor at an adult novelty store blush. If any of that intrigues you, “Neighbors” is likely to satisfy.