Makers of R-rated comedies face an essential dilemma: finding new ways to gross out their snickering adolescent viewers. But as Neighbors demonstrates, there’s another challenge that’s just as tricky: piloting the raunchy scenario to a payoff that upholds the very middle-class values the movie gleefully profanes.
Neighbors opens in an upscale suburb, where a house is occupied by a standard sitcom couple: goofy, pudgy dad and improbably beautiful mom. Although they have an infant daughter, Mac (Seth Rogan) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) endeavor to keep their pre-parental “cool”. They are pot-smokers and rave-goers, and when the movie begins they’re trying to have sex. They fail, embarrassed that baby Stella can see them, although Mac’s insistence on narrating the action — “this is happening!” is just as deflating.
The real conflict begins when a college fraternity, Delta Psi Beta, moves in next door, cramming its new home with beer, babes, noise and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Mac and Kelly try to indulge the newcomers, even joining them for some of their daily parties. But the neighborly outreach doesn’t lead to quiet, and Stella can’t sleep through the racket. So the 30-something old folks call the useless, but of course, cops.
Full-scale culture war results, led by grim-eyed, often shirtless Delta president Teddy (Zac Efron) and his marginally more reasonable lieutenant, Pete (Dave Franco). Foul-mouthed Kelly is a more skilled combatant than Mac, even if she does sometimes divert her hostility away from Teddy and toward her husband. The bitter conflict encompasses condoms, exploding airbags, girl-on-girl smooches and sword fights.
Been there, inserted that, so Nicholas Stoller and script writers, Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien needed a new outrage. They find it in the procreative aspect of sex, which may discomfit the teen-boy demographic. After some hard partying, Kelly is swollen with alcohol-tainted milk, and hysterically insists that Mac relieve the pressure. A set of veiny prosthetic breasts amplifies the body-horror hilarity of the moment, which may be unprecedented but feels as predictable as everything else in this utterly routine provocation.
After that scene, it hardly matters if the frat house burns down and takes whole neighborhood with it. Neighbors has attained its peak of queasy vulgarity, and now must negotiate its way down the other side toward a cozily sentimental conclusion. Near the end of Neighbors in which it’s revealed what has become of Efron’s hard-partying, never-studying Teddy after college graduation. (It has no bearing on the rest of the plot, but if you don’t want to know, stop reading now.)
In what is either the movie’s deepest self-inflicted wound or its most cunning inside joke, we learn that Teddy has become… well, a model for Abercrombie & Fitch.
It’s a moment that rings more painfully, exquisitely true than anything else in the film.