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SXSW Film Review: ‘Neighbors’

Zac Efron gives one of his most credible and intriguing performances in this winningly stupid frat comedy.

With:

Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz, Lisa Kudrow, Jake Johnson.

Lewder, weirder, louder, leaner, meaner and more winningly stupid than anything its director Nicholas Stoller and star Seth Rogen have ever been involved with before, frat comedy “Neighbors” boasts an almost oppressive volume of outrageous gags, and provided that audiences don’t mind the lack of anything resembling a coherent story arc, its commercial potential ought to be enormous. Presented as a work-in-progress at SXSW (though aside from missing credits and a few continuity quirks, it appears largely finished), “Neighbors” is an unchecked riot that should go a long way toward selling antagonist Zac Efron as a credible adult actor, though as with anything involving the Greek system, a bit more moderation from the start might have prevented a few headaches afterward.

Rogen and Rose Byrne star as Mac and Kelly, a young married couple whose infant daughter has prompted a move into the suburbs. Aside from the disruption to their sex and social lives — their efforts to organize “baby’s first rave” notwithstanding — the couple seem to be managing the transition to parenthood well, until the property next door is taken over by the Delta Psi Beta fraternity, led by peacocking president Teddy (Efron) and his brainy, just barely sublimated love interest, Pete (Dave Franco).

The frat’s arrival forces Mac and Kelly to confront their own accelerating decline into old fogeydom, as they frantically debate the least-uncool way to deliver the phrase “could you keep it down?” to their new neighbors. The two parties extend some initial olive branches, with Teddy inviting the couple over for some magic mushrooms and Mac strenuously attempting to use the word “trill” in conversation, but when Mac and Kelly finally call the cops on one of the frat’s weeknight ragers, the two houses declare all-out war.

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While the film’s first 15 or so minutes bear a notable resemblance to Stoller’s shaggier, more amiable previous efforts like “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “The Five-Year Engagement,” at this point the director allows chaos to reign supreme, with the pic quickly turning into “Revenge of the Nerds” by way of “Spring Breakers.” Mac and Kelly’s meeting with the university dean (Lisa Kudrow) reveals that the frat has only two disciplinary strikes left before it will be disbanded, and the couple instigates an elaborate campaign of sabotage, with Delta house responding in kind.

There’s little here that makes much sense from a narrative standpoint — indeed, Rogen’s 2013 hit, “This Is the End,” might as well be Bergman by comparison — yet only occasionally does it matter. Subplots involving Mac and Kelly’s best buddy (Ike Barinholtz) appear to be missing key establishing scenes. At times the film abandons all pretense of sketching a real dramatic arc altogether, simply lining up one outlandish, frenzied setpiece after another. And at the end of the day, there’s no real reason for Efron and Rogen to stage an epic kung fu battle using plaster casts of the Delta house members’ members. But sticklers will be few and far between.

Relegated to middling girlfriend roles for far too long, Byrne is here cast as the most foul-mouthed matriarch this side of “August: Osage County,” and she attacks the role with almost maniacal enthusiasm. But it’s the eternally shirtless ex-teen idol Efron, surprisingly, who delivers the film’s most intriguing performance, crafting a dime-turning combination of brotherly earnestness and Mephistophelean sadism that will ring true to anyone who ever found themselves on the losing end of a wooden paddle.

In some of the film’s best scenes, particularly a hysterical coda outside an Abercrombie & Fitch store, Rogen and Efron’s characters seem less nemeses than distorted reflections of one another. (On some level, Teddy seems to realize it’s only a matter of years before he’ll find himself on the other side of the fence, tormented by a jerk exactly like himself.) It might have been interesting to see a somewhat deeper, more Apatovian take on this theme, though “deeper” is not a direction the film ever seems interested in navigating.

There are a number of missed marks, however. A gag about infant HIV really needs to be funnier than this one is to justify its existence, while a woefully pointless breast-pump fiasco sequence feels almost cynically engineered just to give the film a “Bridesmaids”-style bodily function conversation-starter. (It may as well have been referred to in the script as “that scene.”) It’s an unnecessary but unsurprising move for a movie that values volume over consistency.

Technically speaking, the pic is much better shot and edited than a college comedy really needs to be, with the frequent party scenes in particular taking on an almost surrealistic timbre.

SXSW Film Review: 'Neighbors'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Headliners), March 8, 2014. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 91 MIN.

Production:

A Universal release and presentation of a Good Universe, Point Grey production. Produced by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, James Weaver. Executive producers, Nathan Kahane, Joe Drake.

Crew:

Directed by Nicholas Stoller. Screenplay, Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O’Brian. Camera (color), Brandon Trost; editor, Zene Baker; music, Michael Andrews; production designer, Julie Berghoff; costume designer, Leesa Evans; art director, Gary Warshaw; sound, Steve Nelson; casting, Francine Maisler.

With:

Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Dave Franco, Ike Barinholtz, Lisa Kudrow, Jake Johnson.

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