Despite widespread misgivings, the Hollywood effort to make Zac Efron into a grown-up movie star continues apace. Said effort suffered a setback in January, when the Efron vehicle That Awkward Moment served primarily to showcase just how many laps he was running behind his co-stars Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan when it came to charm, wit, and overall acting ability.
Efron’s new bite at the apple is Neighbors, a Nick-Stoller-directed comedy in which he plays Teddy, the president of a raucous fraternity that moves in next door to brand-new suburban parents Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne). This convergence creates what we call “situational comedy”: The frat, Delta Psi Beta, wants to host thundering parties late into the night; Mac and Kelly alternate between wishing they were still young enough to attend such parties, and wishing the sonic mayhem would relent long enough for their baby girl to snatch a few lullabies’ worth of sleep.
The customary ways in which Mac and Kelly might remedy this not-unheard-of circumstance are quickly dispensed with. Wouldn’t the Delta Psi’s other neighbors in this affluent residential community also object to their nocturnal debauches? No, in an extremely brief scene, the frat brothers are shown “buying off” the other neighbors by performing household chores with their “slave army” of pledges. Well then, can’t Mac and Kelly call the police? Alas, no to this as well: After the couple’s first, failed attempt at an anonymous report—“We have caller i.d.,” the irritated patrolman explains—the police tell them never to call again. If they want justice, the young parents will have to take it into their own hands.
From here on out, premise essentially serves as a substitute for plot. Apart from a few shopworn narrative twists—will Beta Psi get its third “strike” from the university administration and be forced to dissolve? Will the frat get to throw its huge end-of-the-year bacchanal?—Neighbors never evolves meaningfully from its setup: Mac and Kelly act, Delta Psi retaliates, hijinks ensue.
There are clever bits of dialogue sprinkled throughout—an ongoing argument between Mac and Teddy over whether Michael Keaton or Christian Bale is the “real” Batman; a couple of callbacks to This is the End; jokes about J.J. Abrams and Kevin James—but the bigger, coarser gags generally fall flat: a baby with a condom, a bake sale of dildos, a breast pumping minus the breast pump, etc., etc. Years ago, Judd Apatow’s central breakthrough (and to a lesser degree, that of the Farrelly brothers before him) was that gross-out comedy works best when the gags are embedded into a genuine narrative. Neighbors, by contrast, has no meaningful stakes, no coherent story, no resonant or sympathetic characters—nothing, really, to tie together its uneven stabs at comedy. It’s Apatow without the Apatow, all ornaments and no tree.
Among the movie’s many problems is that it offers only the flimsiest conception of its central conundrum, parenthood. Screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien roll out the usual tropes—planning “spontaneous” sex, maternal boredom with staying home all day—but Mac and Kelly never register as remotely plausible parents. And while Byrne has her moments of unexpected comic flair as Kelly (sporting her authentic Australian accent, no less), Rogen’s performance as Mac is strictly second-tier.
The direction by Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek) likewise feels halfhearted, and Cohen and O’Brien’s script scarcely merits the term. The supporting cast varies wildly, from the excellent-but-underutilized (Lisa Kudrow, as the dean of the university) to the better-than-expected (Dave Franco, as Delta Psi’s vice president) to the woefully pointless (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, coasting on McLovin fumes as a massively over-endowed frat brother).
And as Efron himself? Well, he’s not the least-likable character in the movie, which I suppose represents progress relative to That Awkward Moment. (Though, in fairness, he has stiffer competition for the crown this time around.) Efron is clearly a good-looking guy, with a lean, muscled frame that recalls a young Brad Pitt’s. Indeed, at 26, he’s nearly the age Pitt was when the latter de-shirted his way into stardom in Thelma & Louise. But even then there was a loose-limbed languor to Pitt that Efron lacks utterly. Shirt on or off, he’s a little too stiff, too anxious, too aware of the camera. You can almost always see him acting.
There’s a scene 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…. a model for Abercrombie & Fitch.
It’s a moment that rings more painfully, exquisitely true than anything else in the film.