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The Comedic Neighbors
Slobs versus snobs becomes slobs versus slightly older slobs in this this weekend's comedy release.

With Forgetting Sarah Marshall, director Nicholas Stoller burst onto the film comedy scene with a fully-formed voice. Able to balance the considerations of broad comedy and intimate character work adroitly, Stoller made the best Judd Apatow-styled movie that Apatow himself did not direct. And although his next two films (Get Him to the Greek and The Five-Year Engagement) didn't manage those two competing interests as cleanly, they still showed a filmmaker uninterested in manufactured conflict. There are no villains in Stoller's movies, only circumstances that allow for his characters to behave in ways both sophomoric and sympathetic.

His newest work, Neighbors, is a return-to-form, telling story of an escalating war between a young married couple replete with newborn (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) and the frat house (headed by Zac Efron and Dave Franco) that moves in next door that somehow manages sympathy to both parties. That magnanimity extends to the comedy, with a college atmosphere that sees veteran comedic talent co-mingling with relative newcomers that allows for every major character to earn big laughs.

Rose Byrne has been in comedies before, but even the female-dominated Bridesmaids didn't allow her the opportunity to let loose like she does here. The film is incredibly knowing in how they construct her Kelly character, never making her the shrew that forbids Rogen's Mac from partying with the frat next door, instead creating a woman just as interested in acting a fool after months of mothering that has left her stir crazy. Both of these characters are far enough away from the college experience that they want to convey a measure of parental authority but still close enough to try to convince these youngsters (and themselves) that they're still hip and vital. There's a joy in watching both of these characters behave like idiots, a kind of mutual matrimonial mania that we simply don't see in our phallocentric American comedies.

Equally surprising is Zac Efron – his performance in the wretched That Awkward Moment earlier this year made me question whether this performer would ever be able to transition from his position as a tween heartthrob, but his work here removes all doubt. Taking a character which would be the alpha male butt of a lesser comedy's jokes throughout and finding the humanity underlying his desperate attempts at becoming a party legend, Efron showcases a comedic vulnerability that feels like a breakthrough similar to what Channing Tatum did with 21 Jump Street. His pairing with Dave Franco (James' younger brother) creates a relationship equal of the Rogen/Byrne pairing, with all parties either fast-approaching or attempting to flee the constraints of adulthood.

The film does commit some of the sins of Stoller's lesser work –funny actors and actresses (Hannibal Buress and Carla Gallo, to name two) are kept on the periphery and never really given enough character moments or comedic bits to justify their frequent inclusion. Operating in that mode creates a slackness to the pacing that creates the occasional lull, although it must be said that Stoller films and edits party scenes of finely-organized chaos with a superior to any of his comedy director contemporaries. A mid-film set piece wherein Byrne hatches her plot to destroy the frat is one for the ages for both director and performer alike. But any quibbles are minor when dealing with a comedy whose jokes hit far more frequently than they miss. Neighbors might lack the qualities of an all-time classic, but it's immensely funny and surprisingly thoughtful in its construction, or at least as thoughtful as any film featuring a duel between two men brandishing sex toys can possibly be.


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