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'Neighbors' Just Wants To Be The Gross Joke Next Door

Zac Efron in <em>Neighbors</em>.
Universal Pictures
Zac Efron in Neighbors.

Makers of R-rated comedies face an essential dilemma: finding brand new ways to gross out their snickering adolescent viewers. But as Neighborsdemonstrates, there's another challenge that's just as tricky: piloting the raunchy scenario to a payoff that upholds the very middle-class values the movie gleefully profanes.

Neighbors opens in an upscale suburban Anywhereville, where a house is occupied by a standard sitcom couple: goofy, pudgy dad and improbably beautiful mom. Although they have a infant daughter, Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) endeavor to keep their pre-parental cool. They're pot-smokers and rave-goers, and when the movie begins they're trying to have sex. They fail, embarrassed that baby Stella can see them, although Mac's insistence on narrating the action — "this is happening!" — is just as deflating.

The real conflict begins when a college fraternity, Delta Psi Beta, moves in next door, cramming its new home with beer, babes, noise and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Mac and Kelly try to indulge the newcomers, even joining them for some of their daily parties. But the neighborly outreach doesn't lead to quiet, and Stella can't sleep through the racket. So the 30-something old folks call the — useless, of course — cops.

Full-scale culture war results, led by grim-eyed, often shirtless Delta president Teddy (Zac Efron) and his marginally more reasonable lieutenant, Pete (Dave Franco). Foul-mouthed Kelly is a more skilled combatant than Mac, even if she does sometimes divert her hostility away from Teddy and toward her husband. The bitter conflict encompasses condoms, exploding airbags, girl-on-girl smooches and a swordfight that uses plaster-casts of the frat boys' penises.

Phony phalluses also featured in Neighbors director Nicholas Stoller's 2010 farce, Get Him to the Greek. In that flick, the chubby hero was played by Jonah Hill, and his path to suburban domesticity was temporarily barred by an aggressive rock-groupie type with a dildo.

Been there, inserted that, so Stoller and scripters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien need a new outrage. They find it in the procreative aspect of sex, which may discomfit the teen-boy demographic even more than anal rape. After some hard partying, Kelly is swollen with alcohol-tainted milk, and hysterically insists that Mac relieve the pressure. A set of veiny prosthetic breasts amplifies the body-horror hilarity of the moment, which may be unprecedented but feels as predictable as everything else in this utterly routine provocation.

After that scene, it hardly matters if the frat house burns down and takes whole neighborhood with it. Neighbors has attained its peak of queasy vulgarity, and now must negotiate its way down the other side toward a cozily sentimental conclusion.

The movie finds that outcome in the fundamental kinship of Teddy and Mac. As both men stand topless outside an Abercrombie & Fitch, the sculpted frat boy begins to realize that he will someday be a flabby suburban dad. He, too, will have a wife, a child and a mortgage. His only connection to his glory days may very well be the large-screen TV on which he watches future R-rated comedy patsies be taunted, pummeled and mortified.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Jenkins reviews movies for NPR.org, as well as for , which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.