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It has been said that some of our contemporary malaise stems from the fact that we have, as a culture, lost the traditional markers to separate childhood from adulthood. The bar- or bat-mitzvah is not the assumption of adult responsibility so much as a party. The confirmation is a new set of clothes and spiritual gifts of a material as well as aetherial nature. As a result, we are left adrift to make our own boundaries, that is, if we choose to create them at all. While never exalted to the level of an anthropological study, NEIGHBORS is fueled by that dilemma. With no dividing line between one sort of life and the next step in the growing process, the chronological adults of the piece struggle with the gnawing worry that they have left all the fun of life behind them, while their nemeses, the frat boys next door, haven’t quite come close to coming to terms with the idea that their party days are numbered.
The adults are Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne), new parents and even newer homeowners still feeling the tug of partying all night and struggling to find time for spontaneous sex. As they fret about growing old, as in becoming fuddy-duddy, the universe sends them an ironic gift in the form of a frat house. And both parties, the married couple embarking on a life of responsibility, and the frat boys, led by the intense and enigmatic Teddy (Zac Efron), intent on, of course, staging the most epic frat party ever, come face-to-face with each other’s worst nightmare. Once you get past the idea that Mac and Kelly are the only homeowners on the otherwise sleepy block disturbed by the all-night partying next door, the ensuing battle of wits and egos becomes a wickedly fun romp.
Make no mistake. This is flick that is dedicated to comedy of the broadest kind. Dildo duels have as much pride of place as the dawning awareness of how hollow it is to cling to the past, or to dread the future for something it’s not. The subtlety is in how the battle escalates, with Kelly reverting to a primal instinct of preservation as Mac unleashes his inner demons. Rogan and Byrne, however, do not stoop to playing it as broad as the comedy at hand, and neither does Efron, which is why they humor, while puerile is never quite dumb. Efron in particular, as the cool, square-jawed, immaculately groomed and somewhat formally attired antagonist to Rogan’s schlub of middle-class integrity makes for a delicious irony, with visual cues and audience loyalties being challenged at every turn. One wonders, though, why one of the funniest tropes, involving the theft of air-bags and their subsequent use as instruments of shock and awe, is given away in the trailers. Perhaps it’s because most, if not all, of the other jokes are unsuitable for broadcast television or general movie audiences.
The hi-jinks of ploy and counter-ploy are settled early on, leaving the rest of the film for the protagonists to wallow in their uncertainty of what happens next, both in the continuing antagonism with the neighbors, and in their lives. While always sharp in its observations, neither the script nor the direction is heavy-handed. Plus, there’s Ike Barinholtz as the comic relief, joining Mac and Kelly in their struggle, and saying the wrong thing with a deadly sort of seriousness, and Lisa Kudrow as the headline-sweating college dean.
NEIGHBORS pulls of that tricky move of showing wanton debauchery, even mining it for it humor, obvious and otherwise, without seeming to endorse its excesses. Often laugh-out-loud funny, and from time to time genuinely touching without losing its edge, it’s a gross-out film without the grossness, and an excursion into the absurd that makes a salient point.