NEIGHBORS opens with a young married couple debating whether or not it's okay to fuck in front of their infant daughter. The wife, Kelly (Rose Byrne), is emphatically arguing the pro side of the argument, stating somewhat rationally that the child really has no idea what it's merrily watching, while the husband, Mac (Seth Rogen), is completely creeped out by the idea of staging a live sex show for his darling little girl. As they continue to bicker, the opportunity for a libidinal interlude passes. This is the hell of having children: you can't screw on your own schedule anymore.
But Kelly and Mac aren't quite ready to bid farewell to their reckless youth. Soon after the thwarted sexual episode, they talk themselves into joining their childless friend Paula (Carla Gallo) at a rave with baby in tow; much to their chagrin and embarrassment, they collapse in an exhausted heap at the front door before making the scene. Once again, it hits them. They're on baby time now. Playtime is over.
But what if the party were to move in next door? That's the question posed by director Nicholas Stoller and the screenwriting team of Andrew J. Cohen & Brendan O'Brien as they force Kelly and Mac to confront the twenty-four-hour revelry of a relocated fraternity house from the local university. It's a troubling development to be sure, but the couple have no intention of being the kind of uptight, in-bed-by-eleven buzzkills they surely tormented in their college days. They're cool. They smoke pot. They drink. They're down for a good time. All within reason.
Though Kelly and Mac make a good-faith effort to find a happy Dionysian middle ground with the fraternity (Mac even brings over a peace offering of cannabis), it quickly becomes clear that the brothers, led by the preposterously handsome Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), are incapable of moderation. Forced to deal with a wailing baby and a raging party seemingly headed well beyond the break of dawn, Mac, who's afraid to look uncool in front of the younger guys (with whom he's tried desperately to bond), decides to break his agreement with Teddy and call the police. For Teddy and his brothers, this is a declaration of war. And once they're joined in property-defiling battle, Kelly and Mac aren't about to back down.
NEIGHBORS hews to the riff-happy aesthetic that's been the norm for American comedy over the last decade, giving Rogen, Byrne, Efron and their immensely capable costars ample room to exploit each situation to often riotous effect. The movie works best when it hangs out at the frat house, where Dave Franco swipes multiple scenes as Pete, Teddy's top bro who's equipped with the power of being able to achieve a full, rock-hard erection mere seconds after falling into a trance(a skill that comes in handy later in the film). Being that this is a Stoller-Rogen joint, the dick jokes are relentless to the point of overkill, but the hit-to-miss ratio is so favorable that you can't complain. And yet they're all outclassed by the film's surprisingly graphic lactating breast gag, which pays milk-spurting homage to Takashi Miike's cult classic VISITOR Q. Perhaps Stoller and Rogen can work an ICHI THE KILLER-inspired sight gag into their next movie.
NEIGHBORS is an undeniably funny movie, and it represents a step forward stylistically for Stoller, who frequently captures the hypnotic, drugged-out bliss of a classic college rager. But in focusing exclusively on the escalating tit-for-tat battle between Mac and Teddy, he loses sight of the family dimension that initially gave the conflict its edge. The presence of the infant largely becomes an afterthought as the narrative progresses, leaving us watching a couple of irresponsible parents trying to get an out-of-control fraternity expelled from school; basically, in trying to suggest both sides are at fault, they've had to dumb everyone down a little too much. There's satirical potential in the notion of young parents trying to have it both ways (Kelly and Mac are very much the type who think its cute to bring their baby to a dive bar), but Stoller sticks to convention. It's hard to quibble with his instincts. This is, at its core, a big studio summer comedy. Satire is what gets dumped on 800 screens on Labor Day weekend. I should just be grateful for the Miike reference and shut the hell up.