When a wild fraternity moves into the house next to Kelly (Rose Byrne) and Mac (Seth Rogen), a thirtyish couple with a new baby, they feel conflicted. Near constant noise and debauchery will disrupt the peace of their sleepy neighborhood and throw off their routine schedules, but truthfully they crave a little craziness. It wasn’t very long ago that they were carefree and in college themselves, and new parenthood is making them wistful for the past and afraid of becoming boring.
Desperate to avoid seeming like buzzkills (even though they really do want their young neighbors to just keep it down), they try to play along at first and even join the party one night. Real life makes it impossible for them to live in both worlds, though. Very soon, after a series of necessary-to-the-genre misunderstandings and mistakes, the situation has escalated quickly into all-out neighbor war.
Directed by Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek), the movie Neighbors has all the elements necessary to make it the next successful gross-out, slightly romantic comedy with arrested development undertones. However, thanks to a generally good-hearted script obsessed with pop culture and all-in performances from its stars (particularly Byrne as Kelly), Neighbors slightly exceeds expectations by throwing a few surprises into what could be just another immature prank-based film.
Not that Neighbors is smart, exactly, nor does it completely upturn traditional comedy cliches, but it does make an effort to gender equalize the situation. Byrne, who carries herself well throughout, channels the outrage of hundreds of minor female movie characters when Kelly shouts at her husband that it's not fair how he gets to be irresponsible and have all the fun while she is expected to be the bitchy mom whose only job is to scowl and complain. She makes a good point, and from then on not only participates in the shenanigans, she directs them.
Zac Efron plays Teddy, the academically lacking but smoothly charismatic president of the fraternity. Though he looks as pretty and chiseled as an Abercrombie model, he easily matches Rogen's buffoonish onscreen presence and puts a new spin on the man child act. Just as Efron's background in movies is all over the place (he's been a teen High School Musical idol, a Nicholas Sparks heartthrob and an indie movie experimenter), his character is hard to pin down and suggests that, as an actor, Efron is capable of more range than his bro-aesthetic suggests.
A strong supporting cast also helps Neighbors overcome its flimsier qualities. When Hannibal Buress and Lisa Kudrow get to show up and have some fun (both as off-kilter authority figures), it's easy to overlook a few flaws in pacing and logic.
As for pop culture references, this movie couldn't exist without them. Jokes are crafted around Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Anchorman, Aladdin, Robert De Niro, Samuel L. Jackson and Anne Hathaway, just to name a few. Is this a tactic to win over the audience or a sign of the meme-dominated times? Both, probably. Our identities and connections are tied to all that we've consumed, and Neighbors celebrates that.
"Who is Batman to you?" Mac asks Teddy early in the film. They have different answers to this question (Mac says Michael Keaton and Teddy says Christian Bale), but like everything else that makes the frat and family different, they ultimately realize this is not something that should bother them. Other people have other Batmans (and goals, and responsibilities, and interests), and that's fine. In the world that exists in Neighbors, this realization is a breakthrough, and it's what adulthood looks like.