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Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne play new parents in a new neighborhood.  They both seem unsure about this stage of life they’ve entered, enough to make you wonder if maybe it happened to them by accident, and they’re struggling to make the best of it. They don’t seem to have (or want) any friends who are also parents, and the friends they do have don’t see any problem with taking a baby to a rave.

So when a fraternity, led by Zac Efron and James Franco’s little brother moves in next door, their first concern isn’t for their child’s welfare, but whether or not their new neighbors will think they’re cool.  They head next door during the housewarming party with a peace offering of pot in hand, and end up staying until sun up, doing mushrooms, and generally out partying the college kids.

This scene, like a lot of “Neighbors,” doesn’t ring true, and might be funnier if it had more to do with reality.  I am a parent, and when my kids were as small as the one in the movie, staying out all night wasn’t an option, not because I was trying to be a responsible parent, but because sleep was as hard to come by as a sober person at a frat party.  Rogen and Byrne know that they ought to tell their neighbors to keep the noise down, but they don’t seem very invested in the idea. Clearly, they are getting too much sleep.  When our downstairs neighbors threw a loud party while the baby was sleeping, my wife did not practice hip ways to ask them to “keep it down.”  She stormed downstairs, wild hair flying, murder in her eyes, and DEMANDED that they shut the hell up.  She didn’t even knock.  I think she scared the party out of them forever.

But comedies don’t need to ring true to be funny, and “Neighbors” has its moments.  The parents and the frat boys engage in a prank war, though the creativity and genius is clearly on the side of the frat boys. The best gag was prominently featured in the trailer, which is a bummer, because the element of surprise would have made it even funnier.  Rogen starts out with some simple property damage — making you think, really?  You couldn’t come up with anything funnier than busting a pipe with an axe and flooding a basement? To its credit, the way the frat boys raise money to repair the damage is one of the most raunchily, disgustingly inspired fundraisers in the history of raunchy moneymaking schemes.  After that, Rogen and Byrne mostly find ways to get two birds stoned at once – they party with the frat boys while finding ways to get them in trouble for the partying When you think about it, that’s actually pretty hypocritical and mean-spirited.  Rogen and Byrne aren’t as cool as they think they are, and by the end, it’s really not hard to side with the Efron and Franco in the midst of all this.

The set pieces are not the most inspired in the history of frat comedies, but the characterization picks up the slack. Rose Byrne refuses to be the nagging wife in this testosterone-soaked environment, insisting, “I’ve got a little bit of Kevin James in me, too!”  She’s bored to death at home with the baby, but her husband doesn’t look any less bored in his office cubicle job. Rogen, as usual, would be funnier if he would shut up every now and then; his stream-of-consciousness ad-libbing is really hit and miss. .  (A dance-off between Rogen and Efron is another comedic highlight; Rogen really is best when is mouth is shut and his flab is on display.  He’s more Chris Farley than Woody Allen, but seems to forget.) But Rogen and Efron create an interesting spectrum of 21st century male insecurity and identity.  Rogen, married with children, can’t escape the sinking feeling that his glory days are over and that life before him is bland as baby food.  Efron is on the other side — he’s living his glory days, but seems increasingly aware that they’ll be ending soon, and, with his poor grades and lack of connections, the future doesn’t hold much for him.  His drive to make the most of every moment carries a sad tinge of desperation to it; he’s like a death row inmate determined to enjoy his last meal.  Franco, meanwhile, seems like a counterpoint to all this — he loves to party, but he’s going to job fairs and graduating cum laude at the same time – he knows where he’s going after college and the fraternity.  Oddly, that means he’s kind of out of place in all of this; he’s more likely to end up like Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino.”

Despite its sharp characterizations, the script for “Neighbors” feels like it could have used a few more drafts.  The ways the film keeps Rogen and Byrne from seeking help from their neighbors and/or the police are thin.  There’s a memorably but completely unfunny scene involving breast milk that seems to be there only to satisfy some unwritten rule that a movie like this have some kind of bodily fluid shooting across the room at some point.   And even one of my favorite scenes – the Robert De Niro party – feels like it could have been much funnier with a little more polish. Nicholas Stoller is a director who likes to let his actors improvise their way through a scene, like most comedy directors these days, but it was bewildering how many comedic leads never come to fruition.  This shagginess keeps “Neighbors” interesting; it is not as by-the-numbers as a lot of similar comedies out there. But what makes it good also keeps it from being great; with a little more focus, and tightening, this could have been the best comedy of the year.  It’s in the neighborhood.


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