The frathouse comedy is, to say the least, a well-worn genre. Animal House set the standard and to date it still hasn't been topped. Most entries in the canon seem content with updating the antics of John Belushi & Co to varying degrees of success, then fading back into the woodwork once their assigned task is done. Neighbors is notable not only because it's very funny, but because it finds a real way to shake up the equation without essentially departing from it.
Since you've doubtless been inundated with promotional material, you're likely aware of the high-concept premise. A happy couple with a new baby (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) are surprised to learn that a local fraternity has moved in next door. Led by Zac Efron's self-important weasel, the brothers intend to party their way to complete moral oblivion: a sea change from the area's previous quiet reputation.
That's pretty standard for these kinds of movies, with the older squares fuming impotently at the young screw-ups whose "totally outrageous" behavior destroys the status quo. But Neighbors isn't interested in following that playbook. In the first case, it treats the fraternity members as obsequious little twerps rather than anyone worthy of admiration. Their antics are funny to be sure, but they ultimately come across as arrogant and deluded more than rebellious or iconoclastic.
And that's where he real bit of genius comes in, because Rogen and Byrne's characters apparently don't see it that way. They used to be those party animals, you see, and while ostensibly happy in their quiet little suburban life, part of them desperately longs to jump back into the mosh pit. They initially approach their new neighbors in the spirit of peace, joining the first night's party before quietly asking them to keep the music down. When that doesn't work, they plot various means of shutting the brothers down, but every time they do, their green-eyed envy keeps getting in the way.
The concept slides the film around some serious plausibility issues (like why Rogen doesn't just call the police from the get-go), but it also provides a potent inter-generational bite. Just as the grown-ups gaze covetously at the carefree rumpus across the fence, so do the cannier members of the fraternity look at their nemeses and wonder if they themselves will be any different in ten years. It gives the various R-rated jokes a fair bit of thoughtfulness of the kind rarely seen in these kinds of movies.
Neighbors also scores points for putting Byrne in the center of the action. When it comes to comedy of this ilk, women usually either serve as tsk-tsking mother types or flat-out sex objects. Here, the Australian actress gets to be just as foolish and short-sighted as Rogen, and reels in some very big laughs as a result. Hopefully, it will further erode the notion that women aren't funny, and maybe give performers like Byrne more chances to flash their comedic chops.
A few problems do crop up as well, mostly in the suspicious absence of things we associate with the real world (like lawsuits and the existence of other nearby residents who might not be thrilled by the loud parties either). Of course, if they did, there wouldn't be a movie, and the film makes a few hasty attempts to excuse them -- giving Lisa Kudrow a chance to shine as a dippy university dean -- but it still has to skate past some very uncomfortable questions. The gags also include some ill-conceived bits involving a stolen airbag that work brilliantly as physical comedy, but leave a very bad taste in the mouth once you consider all the implications. (This material needs to limit itself to pranks and mischief. Moving into actual criminal behavior and possible child endangerment? That kind of kills the buzz.)
Such issues aren't entirely surprising, and thankfully don't limit the rapid-fire gags that still serve as the ultimate purpose of the exercise. Neighbors knows the difference between clever and merely tasteless, and brings some solid notions to bear that lend the humor some surprising weight. It can't touch Animal House, of course, but it has enough self respect to do its own thing with the same basic idea, instead of just filling in the blanks. That's enough to make it the comedy to beat this summer, an R-rated gigglefest with the rare distinction of some smarts behind its raunchiness. The more we see of its ilk, the better.