First, a bold statement: Elise and Zoey Vargas may be the most adorable human children ever captured on film. Jointly playing baby Stella Radner — the progeny of first-time parents Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) — in the new comedy Neighbors, the Vargas twins become generators of involuntary awwwwwws every time they break out a four-toothed grin or a squeal of delight. Nobody was immune at the preview screening I went to: not critics, not hulking frat guys there for the gross-out comedy, nobody.
So what conclusions should one draw from the fact that the single most memorable thing in an ostensibly raucous, escalating battle of pranks is a cute baby?
That is, perhaps, unfairly dismissive of the generally funny Neighbors, directed by Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek) from a script by first-time feature writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien. It casts Rogen in a comfortable role as a genial pot-smoker, and a wonderfully wild Byrne in a comfortable role where she's allowed to speak with her own Australian accent, as Mac and Kelly are forced to contend with the Delta Psi fraternity buying the suburban house next door.
Though they initially try to play nice with the party-hearty crew led by chapter president Teddy (Zac Efron), the escalating noise levels disturbing their sleep lead them to start a conflict from which no one could escape without some sort of humiliating incident.
Neighbors actually latches onto a solid notion underlying all the mayhem: the Radners' ambivalent transition into responsible married-with-a-kid adulthood. Their interaction with their less-encumbered friends Paula and Jimmy (Carla Gallo, Ike Barinholtz) has them thinking they can still manage to be hip even with a mortgage and precious smile-machine Stella; there's a great early scene in which their spontaneous plan to go to a rave with Stella in tow, requiring the gathering of mountains of baby gear, ends with them asleep in their own entryway before they even leave the house. The couple's early efforts to be the cool pals to Teddy and his Delt brothers represent a desperate hope that they actually belong hanging out with college kids; their refusal to buckle when the war begins provides a similar charge of edgy risk in otherwise predictable days.
And it's perfect that they're matched against Teddy, a senior whose quest to be worthy of the
frat's Wall of Honor by throwing a legendary party is built on his fear that nothing worthwhile awaits him after graduation. Neighbors is built on the classic (or tired) foundation that the antagonists are really more alike than they realize — in this case, people clinging to a familiar sense of what makes a happy existence, digging in their heels against the perspective adjustments required for the next transitional life moment.
If that sounds a little heady for a movie in which the fraternity holds a fundraiser in which they sell plaster casts of their penises as dildos, or a scene where Mac has to manually express Kelly's milk-engorged breasts after her pump breaks — well, yeah. Like many of the comedies by Judd Apatow and his disciples — Stoller wrote for Apatow's short-lived TV series Undeclared — Neighbors is much more concerned with jokes than structure. That allows plenty of room for rambling riffs, as when Teddy and frat brother Pete (Dave Franco) reconcile a previous dispute with various analogs for the "bros before hos" sentiment, and most of them are good for laughs. But it becomes hard to circle back around to anything resembling a thematic idea in the middle of a fusillade of punch lines and pratfalls.
Finally, with Neighbors, we settle for a collection of decent gags and set pieces, rather than something that coheres around the idea of growing up with a little bit of grace. Notwithstanding an exchange between Mac and Kelly at the end that sounds like an attempt to convince us they've learned from this experience, the movie is far less a product of mature contemplation than it is a case of easily distracted joke-telling. You laugh, and then your attention wanders, and you laugh a little more, and then … Oh, my God, isn't that the cutest baby you've every seen?