The last time Universal screened one of their big summer comedies at South by Southwest, it turned out to be “Bridesmaids“—a movie that not only went on to be a massive financial success (and a breakthrough for its cowriter/star Kristin Wiig) but a critical one as well, even earning an Academy Award nomination for its screenplay. So a fair amount of anticipation and excitement greeted tonight’s “work-in-progress” (although look, it seems totally finished) screening of the new Seth Rogen/Zac Efron comedy “Neighbors.” And while “Neighbors” doesn’t come close to capturing “Bridesmaids'” emotional honesty, 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.
When “Neighbors” opens, Rogen and his adorable wife, played by “Bridesmaids” star Rose Byrne, have just moved into a lovely suburban home with their new baby girl. Clearly, it’s a period of adjustment—they want to go out with their friends but really can’t, and find themselves falling asleep all the time and having very little uninterrupted sex (in a great scene they have to turn the kid around to keep her from watching them). They face an even greater obstacle when their domestic tranquility is threatened when a fraternity, led by Efron and Dave Franco, moves in next door.
At first they decide to try and bond with their new neighbors, bringing over a peace offering in the form of a perfectly rolled joint and trying their damnedest to be cool (the walk over to the house accompanied by slow motion and a hip hop song might be expected, but it still totally works). The thought is if their new neighbors think that they’re hip and cool, then they’ll probably be more willing to turn down the music and keep the chaos to a minimum. Rogen and Byrne also attend one of the frat’s early, out-of-control parties, which is the opening salvo in what turns out to be some of the most elaborately choreographed and beautifully photographed party sequences we’ve ever seen in a mainstream studio comedy (their wild night spent drinking their faces off ends in a wonderful scene reminiscent of “The Trip,” with Efron and Rogen comparing Batman impressions.) An understanding is reached: if the frat is getting too out of hand, Rogen should just call Efron and not the cops. But the next night the partying is just as bad, all hell breaks loose and this truce is swiftly overturned (the attending officer is played by the great comedian Hannibal Buress). While the cops are dismissed, the perceived betrayal acts as an opening salvo to a much larger war, with the frat staging party after earth-shattering party and the married couple fighting back in turn.
Other than documenting this natural schism between suburban squareness and the unhinged bacchanal of fraternity life, “Neighbors” is otherwise low on plot, but the jokes and set pieces are so good that it doesn’t really matter. This movie is full of jokes (they seem to ricochet off of each other in all sorts of spectacular ways), and it’s not just the sheer volume of jokes that impresses – it’s the fact that jokes that connect, consistently, more often than not. Rarely does this kind of broad, sometimes crass studio comedy hit its mark so often. It’s consistency is sublime.
Rogen and director Nicholas Stoller (“Get Him to the Greek,” “Five Year Engagement”) are already intimately familiar with he “manchild” subgenre of comedy, having both milked the set-up of a man who refuses to grow up for pretty much all its worth. But “Neighbors” seems new and fresh and different; it’s edgy without ever been outwardly offensive and bro-ish in an inclusive, not obstructive way. Writers Andrew Cohen and Brendan O’Brien are able to explore the idea of longing for that type of that childish behavior while negotiating the path to maturity (free of mushrooms and bong hits) in an organic and credible manner. There isn’t a whole lot of screen time devoted to the clever twist that Efron’s fratboy is Rogen’s idealized, younger self, and in turn that Efron is grappling with the idea that he’ll soon leave the childish antics of the fraternity behind, settling into a role of adult mediocrity, but it’s there and adds a lovely, melancholy undercurrent to the movie that makes the entire experience much richer. In a way, it plays like some kind of bizarre time travel movie… except one with a lot of drug jokes and girls in bikinis.
Efron and Rogen are flanked by a ridiculously terrific supporting cast, including Ike Barinholtz as Rogen’s best friend, Lisa Kudrow as the dean of the frat’s college, “Submarine” star Craig Roberts as a pledge known as “Assjuice” and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as another fraternity brother (one whose, um, member is legendarily huge). But the breakthrough performance in the movie, and the one that took tonight’s SXSW screening by storm, is Rose Byrne. For a while she has been a talented actress playing second banana roles in a number of Judd Apatow comedies (minus last year’s abysmal “I Give It A Year“) and odd genre affairs, always stealing a scene here and there but never warping the entire movie around her greatness. But with “Neighbors,” she nearly steals the entire movie, and certainly gets the surprise comedy MVP award. This is an especially large shock considering that she’s set up to inhabit the largely thankless role of the “loud funny guy’s boring hot wife.” But there is so, so much more here. There is one scene in particular, that takes place at a black light party, that’s an astoundingly funny jaw-dropper. She has proven herself to be a fearless comedic performer, one who is absolutely awe-inspiring in this movie. Rose Byrne is second banana no more.
Equally impressive is Stoller’s direction, accompanied by Brandon Trost‘s cinematography. Most studio comedies look flat and over-lit, but “Neighbors” is bathed in deep shadows, with the party sequences electrifying the movie in dazzling ways. Stoller seems patently unafraid of trying new things—and really weird stuff at that, there’s a damn star wipe in this movie for crying out loud—while Trost, a former confederate of Rob Zombie, pushes the visuals brilliantly. The black light party looks like something out of “Spring Breakers” (and, during the Q&A, Stoller said he took inspiration from “Enter the Void“), while other party sequences take on their own unique cadences. The movie as a whole has a wonderfully playful rhythm, with the jokes rising and falling like crests of a giant ocean wave. But the party sequences really allow the filmmakers to break that rhythm and stretch themselves creatively; they’re each like their own little movies. Away from the slightly pat comedies that he has made in the past, Stoller shines. Like Rogen, he seems to have found freedom in maturity, recognizing that it’s easy to find the sublime in silliness. Or is it the other way around? With “Neighbors,” we laughed until we ached. Then we laughed some more. [A-]