Critics tend to think of the director as the auteur behind any given movie. We seek out the meanings hidden in the editing choices and camera angles, and look for overlapping themes from his or her previous works. We don’t usually think of actors this way, but if we look at the career of Seth Rogen from an auteurist perspective, his filmography can be read as the gradual domestication of a growth-stunted man-child. In fits and starts, his characters bumble and stumble from prolonged adolescence to an acceptance, however, begrudgingly, of adulthood. With each movie, his characters’ responsibilities tend to increase, a reality he must navigate while fighting, and sometimes acquiescing to, the urge to hit a bong and run shirtless through someone else’s backyard.
This dichotomy—between life as an extended rager and life as monogamous, workaday suburbia—is the central emotional thesis of Nicholas Stoller’s “Neighbors,” the latest evolutionary step in Rogen’s screen persona. His character, Mac Radner, picks up where his Ben Stone from “Knocked Up” left off. He has a baby with his Australian wife (Kelly); both love their adorable infant, but both still like to party, and are not quite ready to fully succumb to a full-time existence as shut-in parents. In one funny and relatable scene, they decide to bring their child to its “first rave,” asserting that “we can have fun and a baby!” By the time they amass all of the child’s accouterments needed for a night at a club, they’ve passed out from exhaustion.
Their relative “oldness” is accentuated when a fraternity moves in to the vacant house next door, an ostentatiously rowdy cult led by Zac Efron’s Teddy. This provides Stoller and screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien ample opportunity to skewer the stereotypical image of frat life as a secret society of academically challenged, sexually insatiable, obliviously homoerotic preeners.
Mac and Kelly are simultaneously attracted and repelled by their new neighbors, and they want to have their cake and eat it too: They’re flattered when they’re asked to join an all-night party but sanctimonious when they phone in a noise complaint the following night. It isn’t long until both sides drop the pleasantries, and a feud develops—pitting, as the film’s tagline puts it, “family versus frat.”
“Neighbors” is being marketed as coming “from the guys who brought you ‘This is the End,’” even though it only shares producing credits with that clever apocalyptic comedy. But its spirit is indeed similar. “Neighbors” is a fast-paced deluge of outrageously inventive set pieces that vaults walls of plausibility so brazenly that such concerns as “realism” no longer seem to matter. Some of its developments border on genuinely offensive, like the idea that the well-hung fratboys could offset the charges of a massive water leak in their home by selling custom-made dildoes. But most of its over-the-top decisions are both inspired and shocking, including an unforgettable lactation sequence. The film keeps up its manic energy as it barrels toward an inevitable climactic confrontation between neighbors, and it never disappoints.
Mac, of course, has to discover a similarly inevitable moral to this anarchic story, something about appreciating the simple pleasures of parental life rather than pining for the freedom of youth. It’s the latest step in Rogen’s landmine-studded journey toward adulthood. He may never fully reach it; at the expense of hilarious movies like this one, let’s hope it remains a glacial crawl.