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Film review: ‘Neighbors’ is a high-concept failure

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Zac Efron and Seth Rogen engage in an epic dance-off in the woefully unfunny Neighbors.

Two stars

Neighbors Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne. Directed by Nicholas Stoller. Rated R. Opens Friday.

With Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five-Year Engagement, director Nicholas Stoller proved adept at combining lowbrow humor with surprisingly robust character development, telling stories that were as much about exploring relationships as they were about coming up with dick jokes. Stoller tries for the same sort of balance in Neighbors, but he comes up considerably short, in both the jokes and the emotional resonance. Part of the problem may be that he isn’t one of the writers this time, instead working from a script by first-time feature writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien.

Their high-concept story features suburban couple Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) facing off against the college fraternity that moves in next door, led by the bro-tastic Teddy (Zac Efron). It’s a recipe for lots of over-the-top pranks, which the movie dutifully delivers, but Stoller and the writers try to make it about more than that. Mac and Kelly are insecure about their fading youth and their new lives as responsible parents to their baby daughter, while Teddy is finding his life of drinking and partying a little empty, especially when faced with an uncertain post-college future. Instead of mixing these character-building moments into the comedic set pieces, the filmmakers periodically grind the movie to a halt for some unconvincing emoting, none of which adds up to anything by the time the movie ends.

That would be less problematic if the jokes were funnier or the plot were more engaging, but the laughs are pretty thin, and the war between the grown-ups and the frat boys doesn’t so much build to a climax as dissipate indifferently. There’s an admirable effort here to make both sides equally likeable and unlikeable, generally good people who just get a little too carried away. A darker comedy would have escalated the conflict to dangerous and absurd levels, but the characters in Neighbors never resort to anything truly harmful or evil. They rarely resort to anything interesting, either, and the story ends up feeling very limited. It’s refreshing to see Rogen cast in the role of the responsible adult, and Efron displays some comedic potential as a self-absorbed hunk. Too bad the movie fails to explore those characters in a meaningful way, or give them much to do beyond run through a series of tiresome gross-out gags.

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