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Ebiri on Neighbors: Zac Efron’s Blank Face Is This Movie’s Secret Weapon

Zac Efron isn’t the best or even the most surprising thing about Neighbors, but he is perhaps the most exciting. The actor’s lack of range has scuppered such recent efforts as The Lucky One and That Awkward Moment, films which asked him to show tenderness or torment. Neighbors asks no such thing: All it asks of Efron is that he be cool, calculating, dumb, and ruthless. And for once, he seems liberated. That immobile, beautiful face, long his greatest weakness as an actor (if not as a heartthrob), finally transforms into his greatest weapon.

But believe it or not, Efron’s Teddy Sanders is not the true heavy of this hilarious and somewhat confused film, in which his newly arrived, rambunctious frat house upends the comfort of young parents next door Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne). The film opens with Mac and Kelly having sex, congratulating themselves for their spontaneity (“Okay, it’s happening, it’s spontaneous! Who could see this coming? I didn’t see this coming!”), and you realize that the real villain here will be the freshly minted neurosis of adult responsibility and parenthood. Now weighted with an infant, Mac and Kelly secretly mourn the end of their carefree, impulsive lives. When Delta Psi moves in next door, it represents both a temptation and a threat. The young parents aren’t just worried that the parties will keep up the baby (and bring down their property value), they’re also worried about acting like squares. When the couple goes over to the frat house to try to tell Teddy and his crew to keep it down, the young man, realizing he needs them as allies, invites them in. Next thing we know, Mac is getting blitzed and eating bags of weed, and he and Teddy are playfully crossing streams as they pee.

But war must inevitably come to this world, and come it does, when Mac finally calls the cops one night despite having promised Teddy that he would never do so. His duplicity fuels Delta Psi’s retributions, which in turn prompt Mac and Kelly to get even more imaginative as they escalate matters. Soon enough, we’ve gone from toilet paper and condoms on the lawn to genuine acts of sexual betrayal. At every turning point, though, it’s Mac and Kelly who take things to the next level; their hatred of these frat bros stems not just from pride and annoyance, but also from jealousy. The film may adopt the point of view of the adults, but it secretly empathizes with the kids.

Ironically, that disconnect may also be why Neighbors is most effective when it lives on the tense edge of longing and loathing. Whenever Mac and Kelly join the frat brothers in their wild bacchanals, Stoller goes to town stylistically, letting these scenes play out with fever-dream abandon. You sense the young couple’s regret that these days are behind them; every party feels like the Final Party. The energy drops, though, whenever Neighbors resorts to typical patched-together improv scenes, cutting back and forth between two actors riffing on each other. At one point, Efron’s Teddy and his fellow frat officer Pete (a very good Dave Franco) endlessly ad-lib on the expression “Bros before hoes” (“Brad Pitt before Brad Clit … Masturbate before ask-her-to-date … Man purse before regular purse …”) and you’re pretty much ready to bail at about the 15-second mark. Of course, such ping-ponging improv is a hallmark of High Apatow Style, and Stoller (who directed the wonderful Forgetting Sarah Marshall) has long been one of its most effective practitioners. I can’t tell if it’s just exceptionally clunky here, or if I’m personally starting to get tired of it. It could be a combination of both.

Still, Neighbors is a very funny movie, especially whenever it plays the young couple’s, and particularly Mac’s, anxieties off Teddy’s steely, dumb confidence. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t try to give Teddy some pathos. But it does so through hints. Here’s a young guy who’s got his looks (“It’s like something a gay guy designed in a laboratory,” Mac awes early on) and his early-20s male aggression, and little else. Stoller and Efron strike a nice, subtle moment of alienation when Teddy finds himself at a job fair, not knowing what to do with himself. As his frat brothers start to think about the real world after college, Teddy hopes to remain forever young, a perverted Peter Pan of drunk entitlement. A little of that goes a long way, however, and Efron doesn’t attempt to give his character too much of an inner life. Or rather, the movie does it for him. We can’t quite tell what’s happening beneath that placid, emotionless face: Is he scheming? Is he freaking out? Is he just too dumb to care? That very unknowability, which hampered so many Efron performances in the past, turns out to be his most humanizing trait, and Neighbors’ secret weapon.

Photo: Glen Wilson/Universal Pictures