Everything about “Neighbors” screams bro – had we been tasked with pitching the script to a producer, we would have said, “’Tin Men,’ with bros” – and then a funny thing happens: Rose Byrne comes along and wipes the floor with every man in the cast. She puts on a master class in comedy here, and in the process (unintentionally, for sure), she out-funnys the funny guy. This is okay, mind you, and in fact wouldn’t even be a problem if the movie had a coherent script, but it doesn’t. It’s a funny script, and it hits all of the right notes in the end, but the path it takes to get there is dubious, to be sure. Someone, anyone, should have gotten arrested.
New parents Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Byrne) have bought a new home, and love their idyllic grown-up existence. The house next door is up for sale, and to their horror, a fraternity moves in. Mac and Kelly, eager to maintain their youth while dealing with being new parents, try to play the part of the cool neighbors at first, but as the frat’s continuous late-night antics threaten to wake their baby girl, they call the police on them after their attempts to contact them go unanswered. The president of the fraternity, Ted (Zac Efron), declares war, and the two sides engage in a series of escalating stunts designed to put the other side down for good, yet they’re strangely chummy the entire time.
This movie could have had it all if the script was even remotely grounded, but there are too many instances where they go for the big joke at the expense of all logic and reason. There’s the funny bit in the trailer where Mac sits in his office chair and gets blasted through the ceiling. It’s hilarious, but it doesn’t make sense. How were Ted and his bros even able to finagle that? Mac and Kelly have sex in the living room, while the entire fraternity and their guests watch. Did they really not consider shutting the drapes? The script has a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy about these and many other setups, and it only would have taken one scene or even a single line of dialogue to make these moments believable. It’s a pity that screenwriters need to be reminded to sell the joke, to invest the audience in the setup as well as the payoff. Jokes without reason are just noise.
There is also a darker subplot that would have been fascinating to explore, but it is completely ignored. Kelly pulls a stunt at one of the frat parties that’s so manipulative and cunning that it should have done one of two things: scared Mac out of his wits (“Damn, she’s capable of doing that?”), or awoken something in Kelly that has long slumbered (“Damn, I’m capable of doing that?”). It does neither, and the movie is a lot less interesting as a result. One of the key plots in “Tin Men” is that the alpha males seek dominance over each other by seducing their opponent’s wife. “Neighbors” does not go down that route, and while that is the smart move in order to keep the movie from getting too dark, the fact is they make a point of showing the audience that Kelly is a bored housewife living next door to a guy who looks like Zac Efron. After seeing what Kelly does at that party, the Ted/Kelly plotline has tons of potential. Dark potential, but potential nonetheless. Mac and Kelly’s baby also conveniently sleeps through the night every time she’s required to, emphasis on the word ‘convenient.’ (For those who don’t have kids, it doesn’t work that way. Ever.)
“Neighbors” will overcome its flaws with its target audience, of course, because it’s a bro flick, and bros will see it with little regard to what critics have to say about it. And that’s fine – it’s an amusing film, with a mercifully short run time of 96 minutes, and Dave Franco does a spot-on Robert De Niro impression. It could have been better, though, and it wouldn’t have even taken a lot of work to make it significantly better. A great opportunity was missed here.