Neighbors

(2014) ** 1/2 R
96 min. Universal Pictures. Director: Nicholas Stoller. Cast: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse.

/content/films/4677/1.jpgEven more so than its recent forebears (and this is saying something), the new comedy film Neighbors is all about the riff. With Seth Rogen taking center stage, that's not such a bad thing: a steady flow of one-liners improves the odds for laughs.

It's not easy having less story than a Will Ferrell movie, but Neighbors is undaunted. Less a plot than a series of sketches, the latest film from Nicholas Stoller (The Five-Year Engagement, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) explores variations on the theme of bad fences making bad neighbors, as the fraternity Delta Psi Beta moves in next door to a couple whose early parenthood already has them emotionally vulnerable. "Just because we have a house and a baby doesn't mean we're old people," insists Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne), as much to convince herself as her husband Mac (Rogen). In the process of attempting to befriend and, failing that, master their loud-partying neighbors, Kelly and Mac set about proving they can keep up with the jones-ing despite being the parents of a baby daughter.

Representing for the frat house are its president, dumb party animal Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), and vice president, the studious, going-places Pete (Dave Franco). If Pete is motivated by letting off some steam between exams, Teddy is all about achieving his legacy through some legendary party, as yet undreamed of, to be remembered for decades to come, and both value brotherhood. With their potential for harshing the party vibe, the Radners quickly become Delta Psi Beta's natural enemies, to be outmaneuvered at every turn.

What follows is something akin to The War of the Roses (though it could do with a bit more of that film's savage satire). Though the rest of the neighbors are only glimpsed, the conflict between the Radners and Delta Psi Beta makes an effective microcosm for local politics at the neighborhood level, where selfish interests, petty though they may be, take on outsized proportions. Accountant Mac and stay-at-home mom Kelly need their sleep, as does their growing child, but the frat, with "I've gotta be me" self-confidence, can't not party all the time, replete with thumping bass.

Rogen essentially plays himself (which he's proven good at), while Byrne comically unleashes femme fatality as but one weapon in her Machiavellian arsenal. The best, and funniest, part of Neighbors is its refusal to shunt Kelly to the sideline, and there's a hilarious, postmodern argument between the marrieds about their correspondence to film and TV stereotypes. When Kelly proves capable of her own goofy failings, Mac defensively complains that she's filling his comfortable role of low expectations for men: "Haven’t you seen a Kevin James movie?"

Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien's screenplay is smart enough to humanize Teddy a little (as the senior belatedly realizes he has squandered his chance to learn anything that might serve him outside of a frat house) and to own up to the Radners' transgressive selfishness (while still excusing them as just-folks in the end). Nimble performances by the likeable top-billed foursome go a long way to making the anemic story feel satisfying. It's all very larky and goofy, and if you can meet Neighbors in that place (and assuming you have a tolerance for raunchy, R-rated comedy), you can get a nice buzz off of it.

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