On one side of “Neighbors” sit actors (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) skilled enough to survive lame setups. On the other side sits a comedy suck (Zac Efron) so devoid of timing and expression that setups, good or bad, do not factor.
“Neighbors,” in which a pair of new parents (Rogen and Byrne) go to war with the obnoxious fraternity president (Efron) next door, lands right down the middle in quality, its property line drawn between good acting and bad.
Acting matters more in “Neighbors” than other comedies because the script, by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, is all over the place, piling on would-be outrageous situations to see what sticks. There is no story structure beyond Efron’s character, Teddy, and his bros exacting revenge after the neighbors, Mac and Kelly, call the cops on them over a noise complaint. The couple subsequently plots their own revenge.
“Neighbors” – unrelated to the 1981 John Belushi-Dan Aykroyd film apart from Belushi and Rogen both being somewhat hirsute – contains some hilarious sight gags. But other moments get lost in director Nicholas Stoller’s inundation of retaliatory scenes punctuated by shaky camera work and frat-house strobe lights.
Fewer moments would have been lost had another actor played Teddy. Some plot points fail to land because Efron never varies his expression.
The expression’s foundation appears to be rage. But Efron also looks like he is bored with rage, so he tops it with a blank stare. The result is a kind of soulless simmer that never wavers, whether Teddy is exultant or sad.
When you cannot discern what a character feels, his motivations are unclear. For instance, Teddy wages war on Mac because he feels betrayed, yet you never see that sense of betrayal.
Just after the fraternity moves in next to the Craftsman home on which Mac and Kelly have spent all their money, the couple, wanting to appear friendly and desiring a night out after spending most nights with their baby, raise the roof next door with the college kids.
Teddy, who pretends to like the couple he calls “the old people” to keep them from calling the cops, supposedly took a shine to Mac during this night of revelry. So when Mac and Kelly later do call the police about frat-house noise when they cannot reach Teddy, it supposedly hurts Teddy.
I use “supposedly” because Efron’s performance never indicates Teddy is fond of Mac, or that he is doing anything other than continuing his ruse when he entertains Mac at the party.
So this key development, on which the plot hinges, does not register.
It does not help Efron that his character is arc-less, or that the actor is paired most often with Dave Franco (younger brother of James), who plays Teddy’s second-in-command, Pete, and also appears comedically impaired. Scenes in which the two actors “riff” off each other underscore their lack of chops. It’s almost unfair of director Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him to the Greek”) to put them in this situation.
Neither Teddy nor Pete seems like a viable human being, giving Mac and Kelly no true antagonists off which to play. Yet Rogen and Byrne still hold up their end.
Though Byrne is a born tragedienne, she does broad comedies like this and “Bridesmaids,” anyway. Casting her against type offers its own brand of comedy logic. When Kelly becomes angry, it’s not comedy anger but drama anger, its power fully drawing our attention to a film that otherwise lets it drift.
Byrne comes off as sexier than most comedic actresses, because she doesn’t goofball up would-be sexy moments. Byrne goes for the kill in a funny sequence that plays on Kelly’s sexuality and shows her appeal transcends “old people” status.
Byrne and Rogen sell a gross-out scene that, had it not been played so well, would be hard for Byrne to live down. (She’s the one putting herself out there in it). But because of the pair’s chemistry – more domestic than sexual, but it gets the job done – the moment seems like something that could happen to a couple. Byrne and Rogen play every beat, from intimacy to panic, believably.
Rogen is as natural as always, whether engaging in a dance-off with Efron or saving moments that would have died without his quick interventions – like a party scene enlivened by Rogen playing Mac as so fun-starved he scarfs down magic mushrooms.
Even Rogen scenes that fail do not stick to the actor. But they never do, even when, as has been the case in previous films, he wrote the material.
Rogen is so relatable, and so clearly always putting his best foot forward – he’s much more likely to appear sweaty from effort rather than unreadable, like Efron – that bad scenes seem foisted upon him.
Such unerring likability cannot be learned. It comes as naturally to Rogen as the tufts of hair sprouting from his back and proudly sported throughout “Neighbors.”
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.