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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, July 31, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Zac Efron and Dave Franco prep for a Robert De Niro party in "Neighbors," now playing.

"Neighbors" stages a feverishly fun fight between family and fraternity


Normally, I like to start these reviews off with a large, overall point or observation about Hollywood, the movie's themes, or perhaps an actor or director involved with the project in the hopes of providing some kind of attempt at depth or meaning.

Perhaps I could talk about the Judd Apatow lineage and how it has seemingly found its stride while Apatow himself is trapped dramatically over-elaborating upon his midlife crisis.

Or about the loose psychological id, ego and superego battle seemingly waged throughout the film, one fought with fireworks, airbags and comically over-sized dildos (just how Freud would've imagined it).

Or maybe I could talk about in this apparent bro-down of epic bro-portions, it's the lead lady Rose Byrne who makes the biggest impact.

But let's just skip the formalities for right now and get to the real important meat of the matter: Is "Neighbors" funny? Yes, it most certainly is. That latest generation gap romp is a hilarious, relentlessly raucous display of high voltage comedic chaos that totally delivers on its "family versus fraternity" concept.

Byrne and Seth Rogen star as Kelly and Mac, a 30-something couple with a new baby (baby performances aren't normally worth mentioning – mainly because they're more found in editing – but the duo of Elise and Zoey Vargas is just perfectly precious) and a quiet, cozy new life in the suburbs.

Perhaps too quiet. Both are feeling old, and their attempts to get back out into the world with their divorced friends (Ike Barinholtz and Carla Gallo) only make them feel more so.

A blessing and a curse arrives in the form of new neighbors: Delta Psi, a local college's frat with a cameo-filled legacy of epic parties and burning down the house (literally).

At first, Kelly and Mac awkwardly if amicably get along with the brothers next door, led by alpha dog Teddy (Zac Efron, with a toned Abercrombie & Fitch-ready physique guaranteed to make all the men in the audience self-conscious about nomming their butter-soaked popcorn) and his loyal second-in-command Pete (Dave Franco).

They even party with them one night, finally living and feeling cool while feasting on the boys' bounty of Natty Light and shrooms.

It doesn't take long, however, for the frat's loud kegger-happy ways to get old, especially for a family with an easily set-off baby. Pushed to the edge and with nothing else to do, Mac sheepishly calls the police (an enjoyably droll Hannibal Buress), betraying loyalty-bound Teddy's trust and setting off an all-out psychological war between the two new rivals. Lawns are ruined. Traps are laid. Hos are put before bros. It's absolute anarchy.

The success of "Neighbors" mostly comes from the cast, top to bottom hilarious and pitched at just the right level of uninhibited wacky intensity.

Despite being slightly miscast as a flustered everyman pushed too far, Rogen is still his usual entertaining self, loosely cracking jokes and improv-style riffing with his fellow cast members.

The film's real MVP, however, is his partner-in-crime Byrne. Usually women in comedies like these are relegated to being the nagging conscience (an argument in the second act even jokes about this, noting that they should both be allowed to be Kevin James in their frat battle), but Byrne is right in the middle of the action and even often the lead instigator.

The Aussie actress seems to relish the chance to unhinge, stealing a number of scenes with her light comic delivery and surgical, sneakily effective maternal intensity when in action. Even on fairly routine jokes, like the classic discreet tossing a shot over the shoulder or desperate jive-talking, Byrne brightens it up and makes it amusingly fresh.

Efron, almost finished crawling out from under his past Disney persona, is very funny as well, fully devoted to his obsessive king of the frat bros. It actually turns out to be the finest performance in the movie. Underneath the smug, arrogant and slightly deranged exterior, Efron also finds something kind of oddly sweet and sympathetic, a deep insecurity that leaves him with a childlike death grip on the ideas of loyalty and brotherhood.

He's not merely leading the charge against the old folks next door because they're harshing his buzz. As a guy with his frat's letters tattooed on his arm, mindlessly devoted to having the greatest party in the brotherhood's history and proudly declaring his GPA as "in the high 1s," Mac and Kelly represent an uncertain future that he's neither ready or willing to take on.

The opposite goes for our married duo. When they look across the yard, they see a reminder that they're old now, responsible for another person. Their days of youthful freedom are gone or at least completely altered. They also see a neon-soaked opportunity; even when the fight reaches an uneasy truce, they push it forward because, well, they gotta get out of the house sometime.

The two teams may be fighting each other, but their real enemy is the same: the horrors of becoming a boring adult.

That all makes "Neighbors" sound a lot more serious or mature than it is. After all, this is a movie with flaming barrels of weed, a dildo fight and dueling Batman imitations. And it's all consistently funny, even down to the side characters. Barinholtz, Gallo, the various Delta Psi bros and especially Franco (I predict a particular face of his will soon be the GIF that keeps on giving) all leave uproarious marks on the movie.

The script from Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien is loose and unkempt to a fault – while also a little conventional – but director Nicholas Stoller ("Get Him to the Greek," "Forgetting Sarah Marshall") turns out to be an excellent orchestrator of chaos, keeping the bawdy set pieces coming with momentum and visual energy. Even when the script has a token, unnecessary falling out between the leads, Stoller has the right idea to barely linger on it, quickly yet naturally tying it up while keeping the film going.

The jokes hit-to-miss ratio is impressively high, and at the same time, the movie never loses its almost sweet, charming heart. Or at least as sweet and as charming as a movie where a baby almost nibbles on a loose condom can be.

If "Neighbors" was a college party, you'd willingly pay the $10 cover to get in and get your red Solo cup. It's the Stella Artois of Keystone Light-fueled riots.



Theaters and showtimes for Neighbors
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