The crassly funny, not entirely irrelevant comedy “Neighbors” represents something of a watershed: the moment when all those Judd Apatow bad boys tremble on the edge of maturity, look back, and see the soulless face of a younger generation gaining on them.
The face belongs to Zac Efron.
It’s a mark of the movie’s high spirits (in every sense) that Efron appears to be in on the joke. The one-time teen idol and star of Disney’s “High School Musical” continues to keep his career remarkably viable in the role of Teddy, a swaggering college kid whose fraternity moves in, lock, stock, and bong, next door to a pair of new parents.
The parents, Mac and Kelly, are played by Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as a gravel-voiced Papa Bear and his sleep-deprived, slightly addled mate. They’re operating under the seismic paradigm shift common to all couples with a new infant — even one as adorable and unfussy as Stella (played by twins Elise and Zoey Vargas) — but there’s a deeper confusion operating here. “Just because we have a house and a baby doesn’t mean we’re old people,” Mac tells Kelly, as if reassuring her that they’ve just avoided contracting Ebola. The movie merrily sets out to prove otherwise.
Never mind the illogic of a fraternity being allowed to buy a house in a sleepy suburban neighborhood. “Neighbors” quickly establishes its premise and runs with the comedy of college kids and young marrieds both panicking at the idea of adulthood. Mac and Kelly first try to befriend the brothers of Delta Psi Beta, a frat which (like all others) claims to have invented the toga party, beer pong, and power vomiting. This leads to the amusing/appalling sight of the husband getting zonked on mushrooms with Teddy while arguing the respective merits of generational Batmen Michael Keaton and Christian Bale.
Fun is had but the next night the party continues and Mac and Kelly call the cops. A tit-for-tat war of attrition ensues, with most of the best sight gags given away in the film’s trailer. What you don’t get in the trailer is a small, exquisitely mean performance by Lisa Kudrow as a college dean who only cares about headlines, Byrne matching Rogen stride for stride as a new mom terrified of being left alone all day with a small human, and new benchmarks in creative comic gross-outs.
I can’t quote any of the jokes, but a healthy percentage of them work. There’s a disastrous breast-feeding scene I’m ashamed to admit I laughed at really hard. Written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien and directed by Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), “Neighbors” revels in the standard sex, drugs, and bodily fluids but takes care to throw in a few curveballs. When the fraternity hosts a Robert De Niro costume party, Mac and Kelly look out their window to contemplate a surreal vision of endless Bobs, from classic “Taxi Driver” vintage to “Meet the Fockers” bad dad.
Underlying all the condom jokes and bad behavior is something genuine: the anxiety that young people in a youth-obsessed culture can feel when they’re finally and irrevocably called upon to be responsible. “Neighbors” is bluntly funny about the camaraderie and accepted humiliations of married life — the mouth-guards, the morning farts — and surprisingly frank, too, about what awaits Teddy and the bros after graduation. The frat leader’s a confident dimwit used to coasting on his looks and only now becoming aware that the party’s almost over (he’s rejected by a business recruiter as “being too dumb to work for AT&T”). By contrast, Teddy’s best friend Pete (Dave Franco, an agile player who further distances himself from brother James here) is a bright, needy child of divorce who knows exactly how unfair the world can play.
Yes, there’s a climactic party to end all climactic parties and a grandly absurd showdown in which Mac and Teddy beat each other about the heads with custom dildos. The filthy exuberance of “Neighbors” more than once tips over into mere silliness, and there’s that perfect little girl who sleeps through the night and never stops smiling. (Kids! Don’t try this at home! Real babies cry!) But the movie knows to ground its comic splatter in something close to actual emotional states. Says Pete to Teddy, “The old couple next door remind you of your future,” even as the frat brothers remind Mac and Kelly of everything they’ve given up and gained. That’s a small admission of honesty, but for a generation of kidults, it’s huge.