It would be easy to confuse Nicholas Stoller's new "Neighbors" with the 1981 John G. Avildsen adaptation of Thomas Berger's novel of the same name. Both are versions of the classic "neighbor from hell" concept. Both have connections to the dominant film comedy of their eras — the '81 film to the "Saturday Night Live"/"National Lampoon" axis by way of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, the new film to Judd Apatow's posse of collaborators and buddies by way of star/producer Seth Rogen. And — most importantly — both stink.
In Stoller's film — written by Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O'Brien — a 30ish couple, Mac and Kelly Radner (Rogen and Rose Byrne), are uneasily navigating the transition from wild and crazy youth to more responsible adulthood. The catalyst is their couple-of-months-old baby, Stella (Elise and Zoe Vargas). This shove toward growing up is already causing some discomfort with their still-partying best friends, the recently divorced Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (Carla Gallo). But, outside of that minor ripple, they seem to be relatively comfortable in the transition...
...until the local chapter of the Delta Psi fraternity moves in next door. At first, they worry about the likely noise and raucousness. But, when they realize that this concern is a sign of encroaching geezerhood, they decide to aggressively pursue good relations, even friendship, with the frat boys. After all, Mac and Kelly aren't so old, right? Their wild days aren't so far behind them, right? Who says that parenthood automatically dooms you to being uncool?
So they cozy up to the frat's handsome president, Teddy (Zac Efron), whom Mac describes — in one of the few vaguely funny lines in the whole affair — as looking like "something a gay guy designed in a laboratory." They make sure Teddy knows that they still smoke dope and drink and have passionate sex and haven't turned into grumps, despite having an adorable new human to look after.
The arrangement between Teddy and the Radners — that, if the boys get too loud, Mac or Kelly should just call him first, not the police — falls apart immediately. Teddy declares war; and both sides quickly escalate tactics to a felonious level.
Studio press kits are full of predigested, often made-up quotes, so perhaps Rogen's producing partner, Evan Goldberg, didn't really utter the embarrassing words, "No matter who directs it, who produces it or who's in it, a movie about a couple with a baby and a frat that moves next door is a home run." Sadly, the awfulness of the resulting film suggests that Goldberg et al. may have actually embraced this lazy, self-congratulatory attitude.
It's admirable that the overwhelmingly estrogen-challenged filmmakers wanted to make sure Byrne got a good share of the funny material. But it's also a sign of bad writing when multiple characters appear to be speaking in the same voice, as is the case here. The male filmmakers don't seem to have ever heard anyone other than themselves talk; in rapidfire exchanges between Mac and Kelly, the dialogue sounds less like Rogen and Byrne than Rogen and Rogen.
It's also admirable that the film sides with neither Teddy nor the Radners, but not when it's accomplished by bringing the young parents down to the frat boy's level. In a few long sequences, Mac and Kelly leave the infant at home and go nuts at the frat house, carrying a baby monitor that they would never be able to hear amid the revelry. For just a few moments at the very end, I thought — I hoped — that "Neighbors" was setting us up for a sudden shift into tragedy. This would have been loathsome and inappropriate but at least interesting. It also would have been exactly what the characters deserved.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).