Review: Seth Rogen and Zac Efron wage a hilarious war as ill-suited ‘Neighbors’

AUSTIN – Many of the modern comedies that are considered classics become part of the pop culture lexicon, endlessly quoted by fans in all sorts of different contexts. I have a strong suspicion that “Neighbors” is going to be one of those films that is simply absorbed whole by audiences. Not only is it uproariously funny and almost breathtakingly dirty, it is better written than it needs to be on a character level, delivering completely on its premise.

Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose) are a young married couple who are adjusting to parenthood, having just moved into their first house. They're at that moment where they still have fresh memories of their party days, but they're settling into a life of responsibility and chafing a bit at the sensation. When the Delta Psy Kappa fraternity buys the house next door to them, Mac and Kelly are determined to try to be the cool neighbors. They go over to introduce themselves to Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco), the president and vice-president of the frat, and they try to reach out so that there won't be any problems in the future.

That lasts for about a day, of course. The Deltas, and Teddy in particular, are obsessed with partying, complete with a shrine to various party landmarks from the frat's history stretching all the way back to the '30s. Teddy is determined to get his own picture up on the wall before he graduates, which is problematic for Mac and Kelly and their infant daughter Stella. What begins as a slightly strained back and forth escalates into a full-blown war of the wills as Mac and Stella work to figure out a way to drive the frat out of the house even as the Deltas work to figure out a way to reach party god immortality.

That's pretty much it. There are plenty of plot beats that I haven't mentioned, but part of the fun of the script by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien is that they continually tweak expectations. Like last year's “This Is The End,” what sounds like a fairly thin premise ends up yielding amazing results, giving director Nicholas Stoller plenty of room to simply let his great ensemble cast rip in scene after scene after scene.

“Neighbors” manages to avoid one of my least favorite trends in mainstream comedy. Instead of suddenly shifting into plot mode in the third act or suddenly starting to hammer home a message, “Neighbors” keeps its foot on the gas right up to the closing credits, something I admire tremendously. Sure, they manage to give Efron's character more depth than I expected, and sure, they do a great job of articulating that feeling that so many young parents have, anxiety about no longer being able to do all the things they used to do, but they do so while also continually playing things for big laughs.

When I recently reviewed “That Awkward Moment,” I mentioned that I was unconvinced about Zac Efron so far as a performer, but that is no longer the case. He is genuinely hilarious in this film, and Dave Franco makes a perfect right-hand man for him. Jerrod Carmichael, Craig Roberts, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse are all very funny as members of the frat, and Ike Barinholtz scores some massive laughs as Jimmy, a guy who works with Mac. He and his ex-wife Paula (Carla Gallo) drive Mac and Kelly crazy with their constant fighting, but Jimmy becomes a valuable co-conspirator as Mac and Kelly plan their various strikes against the frat. People like Andy Samberg, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Mantzoukas, Jake Johnson, and Hannibal Burress show up in very small roles, making quick impressions and making even the slightest characters memorable.

Stoller seems to be getting stronger as a director every time out, and one of the things that he has a real knack for is the celebration of bad behavior. He seems to take delight in staging the various parties and in the great no-holds-barred pranks back and forth, and there doesn't seem to be a punchline too outrageous or explicit for him as long as it's funny. It helps that Rogen and Byrne are in absolutely peak form here as actors. I find Byrne more impressive every time I see her, and she proves to be a perfect partner for Rogen. Hell, Stoller even gets a great performance out of Zoey and Elise Vargas, the twins who play baby Stella, especially in the film's wicked opening scene.

Brandon Trost is one of the hardest working cinematographers these days, and he's a great option for comedy directors because of how fast he is and how much life there is in his shooting style. Zene Baker, who edited “This Is The End,” “Observe & Report,” and “50/50,” among others, has given the film a propulsive sense of energy as well. This is brief compared to Stoller's other films, and because it moves so aggressively, there's no wasted moment, no scene that slows things down.

“Neighbors” is a comedy people will return to often, and I would hope it leads to much more work for the writers. Stoller is already in demand, but I think this is going to make people reassess just how good he really is. What we saw tonight is technically a work-in-progress, but it felt very polished already. I may have a slightly sore throat as I head to bed tonight, but it's sore from laughing. One of the highest compliments I can pay to any film is to say I can't wait to see them again, and that is absolutely true of “Neighbors.”

“Neighbors” will be in theaters May 9.