‘Neighbors’ has substance beneath the noise

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First Posted: 5/12/2014

“Neighbors” is a revenge comedy where the hijinks are propelled by actual emotions. The characters are fighting to have time stand still, which gives Nicholas Stoller’s comedy a satisfying sentimental edge. This is a movie that isn’t just funny; it’s smart enough to keep us talking long after the credits roll.

Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radnor (Rose Byrne) possess all the trimmings of adulthood — big house in a leafy suburban neighborhood, a baby — but they struggle with the designation. Mac covertly smokes weed at his numbers-crunching job; Kelly’s role as a stay-at-home mom is eroding her sanity.

Even worse, the roles are sticking. When Kelly and Mac decide to break the rules and see a Prince concert with their little girl, the Radnors get into such a preparatory frenzy that they fall asleep at the door.

When a fraternity moves in next door, a threat morphs into an opportunity. Kelly and Mac ask Delta Psi Beta president Teddy (Zac Efron) to keep the noise down. Identifying the old folks as potential allies, he later invites them to party. It’s a temporary peace. When the noise keeps the Radnors up the next night, they call the cops. Teddy is hurt by the action, and the gloves come off.

After 12 rounds of sabotage, Kelly and Mac accomplish their noise-free goal when the fraternity gets probation. But they keep going. The conflict gives their life vitality not found in mommy and me classes and dinner dates. And they’re close enough to home that they can raise hell while holding the baby monitor. Teddy isn’t backing down, either; he has a legacy to secure. Prolonging the young family’s misery by inspiring future generations of shirtless, partying horndogs to shatter their daughter’s virginity is a good option.

For all of “Neighbors’” humor surrounding dildos and projectile lactation, Stoller knows these characters have to grow up. We don’t rally around the Radnors as much as hope they calm down. And for all of Teddy’s pretty boy assets (chiseled chest, hot blonde girlfriend), he is adrift. When he’s embarrassed at a job fair, Stoller singles him out in a long shot so we know the best years of his life will transition into a special kind of loneliness.

Efron is good, though his performance feels like the culmination of millions of sit-ups and good genetics. Rogen is reliably snarky. The person who makes the film is Byrne, who adds little flourishes to Kelly, whether it’s blowing on her fingers after initiating a plan or detailing the day’s drudgery to her baby in a singsong. As she did in “Bridesmaids” and “Get Him to the Greek,” Byrne gets laughs by being a person instead of doing one thing at maximum volume.

The Australian’s superlative work aligns with Stoller’s mature streak. His directorial debut, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008), features a hero whose emotional baggage would brand him as the loser psychopath in any other romantic comedy. “The Five-Year Engagement” (2012) explores what happens when a relationship features opposing aspirations. With “Neighbors,” Stoller proves again that that real-life conflict can be funny and substantial. Thank goodness it’s also profitable: “Neighbors” made $51.1 million in its opening weekend.

Rating: W W W V

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