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Seth Rogen and Zac Efron in a Family v. Frat Battle

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire May 8, 2014 at 2:09PM

Seth Rogen and Zac Efron square off in a family vs. brat battle, but Rose Byrne walks off with the movie.
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Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen in "Neighbors"
Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen in "Neighbors"

The buzz for Nicholas Stoller's "Neighbors" has been building since SXSW, and with its nationwide release coming up on Friday, critics have come out squarely, if not unilaterally, in its favor.

In demographic terms, Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien's script attempts to bridge the gap between early-20s fratboys and mid-30s parents; it's an us vs. them comedy in which the "us" and the "them" keep shifting. As parents trying to keep the neighboring fraternity house's ragers from waking their six-month-old baby, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne ought to have the upper hand, audience sympathy-wise. But it turns out they're so ambivalent about their own adulthood that they'd just as soon join the undergrads next door in belting back day-glo shots and scarfing psychedelic mushrooms while keeping a token ear on their baby monitor. Once their attempt at diplomacy shifts to all-out war, the supposed adults reveal themselves as barely more mature than the bare-chested bros next door.

Stoller, who previously directed "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "The Five-Year Engagement," keeps "Neighbors" to a commendably trim 96 minutes, but the movie still feels shaggy, in the (over-)familiar Judd Apatow vein. Byrne's shown great comic chops in Stoller's "Get Him to the Greek" and the unloved "I Give It a Year," but here she's too often left to co-riff with Rogen, which isn't really her strong suit. The movie's biggest revelation is Efron, who layers a kind of brooding melancholy into his body-sculpted dimbulb. He's the lord of his domain, but too short-sighted, or too terrified, to come to terms with the fact that hazing pledges and nailing sorority girls is as good as his life is going to get.

"Neighbors" is just good enough that you wish it was better: more disciplined about developing its characters, less indulgent of its endless riffathons. There are some great gags, and some potent ideas, floating around inside it, but too often they drift right by each other.

Efron
Zac Efron in "Neighbors"

Reviews of "Neighbors"

A.O. Scott, New York Times

The central problem in American film comedy for the past 15 years or so -- let's say from middle-period Sandler through prime Apatow and late "Hangover" -- has been maturity, or, more precisely, its avoidance. In the old days, adulthood was a fact. Now it’s a vague, unproven theory. 

Tim Grierson, Screen International

Many modern Hollywood comedies rely on drawn-out improvisation that’s often not as witty as its actors believe, but Stoller and his cast for the most part seem to stick to the script. Consequently, "Neighbors" isn't just really funny, it's also less flabby than its peers.

Drew Taylor, the Playlist

Doesn't come close to capturing "Bridesmaids'" emotional honesty, but it could have a chance of one-upping that film in the box office. Simply put, "Neighbors" is one of the funniest, most visually inventive studio comedies in recent memory.

Genevieve Koski, the Dissolve

Does its duty in out-debauching its predecessors, but does so through a framework that undercuts the nobility of youthful hedonism. It’s one of the most adult college comedies ever, while also leaving plenty of room for setpieces involving a dildo fight and other phallocentric hijinks.

Adam Woodward, Little White Lies

For every silicone cock that's forced into a man's mouth, for every casual drug reference or tedious nod to McLovin's legendary member, there is greater truth and insight concerning the human condition here than you might reasonably expect from a foul-mouthed mainstream comedy. 

Drew McWeeny, HitFix

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. 

Bilge Ebiri, Vulture

Such ping-ponging improv is a hallmark of High Apatow Style, and Stoller (who directed the wonderful "Forgetting Sarah Marshall") has long been one of its most effective practitioners. I can’t tell if it’s just exceptionally clunky here, or if I’m personally starting to get tired of it. It could be a combination of both.

Jordan Hoffman, Film.com

"Neighbors" is really just a string of set pieces. They range from funny to REALLY stinkin' funny. The movie is just a tad over 90 minutes, and that’s just fine. You can tell that there was an initial, longer cut. Some jokes seem to reference things we never saw, or seem to be a set-up for a different punchline. There are instances that feel like a callback but all that’s in its place now is "SCENE MISSING."

 
This is a funny movie in places, but it’ll be a whole lot funnier in the YouTube remix that runs 11 or 12 minutes.

A.A. Dowd, the A.V. Club

In theory, that’s a brilliant conceit, as it allows Rogen to finally (sort of) act his age, while also passing the arrested-development torch to a couple of younger actors. Trouble is, "Neighbors" rarely exploits its generational war of attrition for big laughs or true insight. And despite a couple of puerile gags, it often feels as domesticated (and fatigued) as its main characters.

Anthony Lane, the New Yorker

It’s a promising setup, but it gets frittered away -- partly by narrative laziness (the involvement of other neighbors is dismissed out of hand) but mainly by a flaccid belief in the power of the gross-out. 

Amy Nicholson, L.A. Weekly

Efron gets his Brando moment -- a wheelchair-bound meltdown worthy of Colonel Kurtz -- while showing off his subtle comic timing down to the tiny gasp he squeaks when a rival grabs his balls. But Byrne is the movie's MVP, thanks to a script that does what few comedies allow: It lets the wife earn some laughs.

Andrew Barker, Variety

Relegated to middling girlfriend roles for far too long, Byrne is here cast as the most foul-mouthed matriarch this side of "August: Osage County," and she attacks the role with almost maniacal enthusiasm. But it's the eternally shirtless ex-teen idol Efron, surprisingly, who delivers the film’s most intriguing performance, crafting a dime-turning combination of brotherly earnestness and Mephistophelean sadism that will ring true to anyone who ever found themselves on the losing end of a wooden paddle.

Jason Bailey, Flavorwire

While "Neighbors" features the expected buddy-comedy dynamic, the buddies in question are not a guy and his bro, but a guy and his wife. The comic MVP of the film is Rose Byrne, who pretty much walks away with the picture; she's endlessly funny and likable, and her byplay with Rogen is far more interesting than the standard real-woman-who-turns-the-boy-into-a-man bullshit. 

Matt Prigge, Metro

Kelly’s still a guy's invention: the wife who joins in on the fun, and is just as freaked out as the guy is when the breast pump breaks and she requires milking. But for a female to have fun without being a ballbreaker is big in the expanded Apatow universe, and Byrne -- a serious actress who revealed she has surprising comic elan in "Get Him to the Greek" and "Bridesmaids" -- frequently steals the picture, including from her giggling, laidback co-star, who only gets amped up when wielding a dildo as a weapon.

Inkoo Kang, the Wrap

What makes "Neighbors" exceptional, rather than merely great, is its successful attempt to reinvent the studio comedy. Stoller, Cohen, and O'Brien acknowledge how dreadfully formulaic and subtly (or not-so-subtly) sexist the genre has become -- there's that sense of fairness again -- in a scene where Mac and Kelly point out their fat guy-hot wife dynamic. "I'm the dumb guy!" Mac proclaims. "Haven't you seen a Kevin James movie?" Kelly retorts that she doesn't want to be the responsible one; it's boring being a nag.

Dana Stevens, Slate

Byrne, who played a tightly wound control freak to perfection in "Bridesmaids," here gets a chance to bust loose. In a late sequence where she frantically spearheads a multipart mission to bring down Delta Psi from the inside, Byrne makes you wish someone would write a big, broad, raunchy comedy just for her. Maybe Nicholas Stoller’s next film will center around a female protagonist. Baby steps.

This article is related to: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron


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