Freaks and Greeks

Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne make war on bro privilege in Neighbors.

Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen in Neighbors (2014).
Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen in Neighbors.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

“Bros before hos” stands as one of the foundational mottoes of Delta Psi Beta, the frat house headed up by Zac Efron’s Teddy in Nicholas Stoller’s new comedy Neighbors. The Delta Psis hold this bro-privileging principle sacred—in one of the movie’s funniest scenes, Teddy and his frat brother Pete (Dave Franco) engage in an extended competitive riff in which they create increasingly scabrous rhyming variants on the holy credo. But Neighbors itself, which at first appears to be another example of the by now ubiquitous bros-will-be-bros comedy, winds up neatly turning that maxim on its head. Here, it’s the hos who win the day—if by “hos” you mean “adult human beings who recognize that both women’s and men’s experiences have value” (which I know is not the working street definition of the term). Neighbors pits the power of male bonding against the power of pair bonding, suggesting that the eradication of bro privilege is a task not just for women but for everyone.

This mildly subversive egalitarian message comes wrapped in a familiar bundle of sex jokes, party montages, and body-effluvia-fueled gross-outs (this time it’s breast milk flying across the room rather than poop or vomit, which I guess is cozier as effluvia go). But it’s somehow easy to forgive Neighbors for its predictable moments, maybe because (like Stoller’s 2008 debut Forgetting Sarah Marshall), the movie has more on its mind than the initial setup would suggest. That setup is established briskly and raunchily, as we meet Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne), a young married couple, having sex in plain sight of their infant daughter (played by scene-thieving cherubs Elise and Zoey Vargas). Kelly and Mac haven’t yet quite accepted that parenthood will mean the end of their old, irresponsible life. They’re new enough at adulthood that they still place a high value on being perceived as cool, which puts them in a bind when the Delta Psi fraternity moves into the house next door and starts throwing wall-shaking, baby-waking nightly ragers.

Before heading over to the frat for a faux-friendly welcome visit, Kelly and Mac practice saying “keep it down” in voices that will make them sound, well, down. But thanks to Teddy’s strategic neighborliness, they wind up at the next kegger themselves, baby monitor in hand, scarfing magic mushrooms till the break of dawn. Having thus bonded, the Radners and the Delta Psis declare a truce—one that disintegrates soon after when Mac, his pleas for quieter parties ignored, calls the cops.

Thereafter it’s open war between the ever-less-mature Radners and the overgrown boys next door. But it’s a war that keeps changing battlegrounds: When the college dean (a wearily snide and very funny Lisa Kudrow) puts the Delta Psis on probation and threatens to close the house, the Radners’ goal becomes not to prevent future parties, but to encourage the wildest ones possible.

The plotting in this second half gets a bit busy, with an ever-ascending spiral of practical jokes and dance-floor throwdowns—an overkill that’s particularly regrettable given that most of Neighbors’ best scenes happen in the downtime between frenetic gags. Stoller, who also directed Get Him to the Greek and The Five-Year Engagement, tends to let scenes run a little long, allowing for space for his characters to riff on and react to each other. This technique can be both a blessing and a curse, sometimes dragging down the pace, but just as often permitting lovely moments between actors. That scene I described above—Teddy and Pete’s contest of verbal one-upmanship on the “bros before hos” theme—gets a callback later on, after the two friends have been torn apart by their neighbors’ machinations (and by the simple fact that Pete is outgrowing fraternity life and looking forward to graduation, while Teddy … isn’t). There’s no real reason for the length of the scene in which Pete urges Teddy to remember the intimacy they felt during that awesome rhyming match (“Be with me, man! Be with me in this shit!”). But by letting the moment develop between them, Stoller makes sure these two characters are more than just standard-issue college douchebags—they’re college douchebags who care about each other. A few years ago, this kind of bonding moment between men in romantic comedies was inevitably punctured by a tension-relieving “we’re not gay” joke. It seems like a mark of cultural progress that straight male friendship in a mainstream comedy can now serve as something other than a setup.

Another place Neighbors shows definite, if slight, improvement on the post-Apatow “dudes grow up” template: Here, there is also a chick with some growing up to do. Rose Byrne’s Kelly isn’t a joy-killing scold, like the wives in some (most) contemporary comedies I could name. She’s a barely reformed party animal who relishes the excuse to seek vengeance when the frat dudes push their luck by leaving a condom in her front yard for her baby to nearly eat. Byrne, who played a tightly wound control freak to perfection in Bridesmaids, here gets a chance to bust loose. In a late sequence where she frantically spearheads a multipart mission to bring down Delta Psi from the inside, Byrne makes you wish someone would write a big, broad, raunchy comedy just for her. Maybe Nicholas Stoller’s next film will center around a female protagonist. Baby steps.