There have been plenty of generational comedies about the attrition between young and old. Bad Neighbours is something different. It is about the tensions between the young… and the just a little bit older. The film combines gross-out, Animal House-style frat humour with reflective, rites-of-passage observation about the transition to adulthood. Sharply directed and with effective comic performances from Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, it has a wit and even an occasional tenderness that belie its near-constant crudity.
Rogen and Rose Byrne play Mac and Kelly, a married couple with a doe-eyed baby daughter and a new home (into which they have sunk all their savings) in the suburbs. Zac Efron is Teddy, the president of a student fraternity that, somewhat improbably, has just taken over the house next door. Relations between the new neighbours cool very quickly and soon open warfare is declared.
Mac and Kelly's sex life is continually undermined by the presence of the baby. They can't go out with their friends, either. They are too tired and don't have reliable babysitters. Their ambitions of taking their daughter with them to a rave are soon dashed when they realise how much baby paraphernalia they will need.
Teddy and his friends are young and muscular with perfectly toned bodies. While Mac and Kelly reluctantly adjust to parenthood and sagging physiques, the students throw ever more outrageous and hedonistic parties. Mac and Kelly are regarded by the neighbours as if they are geriatrics. In fact, they are in their 30s. They may now be living a Brady Bunch life but they cling to the notion that they are as carefree and wild as they were in their late teens.
The film makes some telling points about the inability of the young married couple to accept adult responsibility. They want to have it both ways – to party just as wildly as the neighbours but, at the same time, to have the peace and quiet their baby needs to sleep.
The screenplay by Andrew J Cohen and Brendan O'Brien doesn't skimp on obscenity. Much of the humour is crass and scatological. There are jokes about the baby mistaking her father's testicles for bouncing balls and condoms for balloons. Gags involving erectile dysfunction and alcohol-infused breast milk aren't in short supply, either.
Bad Neighbours would make very gruesome viewing if it wasn't for the two male leads. Like Jack Black, Rogen has the ability to portray boorish characters without seeming boorish himself. Here, he is continually exposing his flesh (he is very flabby), talking dirty to his wife and trying to "hang" with the college kids. There is something pathetic and potentially creepy about the way he tries to ingratiate himself with the neighbours by behaving like a teen brat, yet he never forfeits our sympathy.
Efron's character is like a priapic Peter Pan. He clings to his youth. It hasn't occurred to him that one day, in the not too distant future, he will be confronted with the same dilemmas as Mac and Kelly. He can't stay a student forever. If his grade point average and exam results aren't high enough, his prospects will diminish quickly. All that may be left for him is the uncertain future of the male underwear model at Abercrombie and Fitch. His ambitions, though, don't stretch beyond throwing the "most epic party" in the history of the Delta Psi fraternity. Efron plays him with an engaging mix of narcissism, cunning, crassness and (when you least expect it) good manners.
Like the characters, the film-makers can't quite work out which direction to go in. On the one hand, they're making a goofy comedy aimed at an undiscerning teen audience who might think that gags about vomiting in boots or swallowing ping-pong balls are funny. On the other, they try to deal with some of the "big" issues facing first-time parents no longer able to think exclusively about themselves. Their confusion gives the film its uncertain tone.
Byrne is good value as Rogen's long-suffering wife but one of the stranger aspects of Bad Neighbours is that the men seem more interested in each other than they do in the women in their lives. This is a point of principle for the fraternity members: "Bros before hoes," is one of their typically sexist slogans.
What makes Bad Neighbours so enjoyable in spite of its bottom-feeding instincts and contradictions is its cheerfulness. Even at its grimmest, the film retains a sunny disposition. Both sets of characters endure (and inflict) all sorts of suffering. They have to deal with everything from burst pipes to sexual betrayal, from clearing up mountains of trash to coping with huge hangovers. As in old Hollywood screwball comedies, the tempo is brisk. That means there are few longueurs, but also that when the jokes fall flat (for example, the fraternity members making plaster casts of their private parts), we quickly move on to something better. The film-makers also know the value of Mack Sennett-style slapstick. The scenes of exploding airbags hidden under cushions, or of Efron and Rogen having an absurdly overwrought fist fight, may be juvenile in the extreme but, when the timing is right, they still have a comic kick.