‘Neighbors’: War is hell-arious | 2.5 stars

05/07/2014 3:38 PM

05/07/2014 3:38 PM

With his superhero physique and a stare that could burn a hole in a wall, Zac Efron makes a terrifying rival. All feigned smiles on the outside and seedy calculations on the inside, he spouts antithetical mantras such as “Chivalry above self” with utter conviction. He’s perfect as the president of a fraternity.

It’s tough to choose which is more impressive in “Neighbors”: how effectively this former “High School Musical” star portrays a villain or how believable stars Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are as the married couple who square off against him.

This bold casting keeps the raunchy culture-clash comedy enjoyable, even though the narrative leans on improvised punch lines. Whether you consider the humor loose and in-your-face or underdeveloped and tasteless is the question.

Mac and Kelly Radner (Rogen and Byrne) met at college, but their partying days are a distant memory despite living near campus. They’ve sunk all their money into a nice house where they can raise their infant daughter. Mac toils at his “Office Space”-esque job, while Kelly stays home with the baby.

Then the Delta Psi Beta fraternity relocates next door. This hedonistic institution, led by ever-shirtless Teddy (Efron) and sidekick Pete (Dave Franco, sharing brother James’ constant smirk), claims to have invented the toga party and beer pong. They’re anticipating a marathon blowout before graduation.

While Mac would have preferred to see a Taco Bell move in next door, he embraces the opportunity of bonding with the youngsters as a way to stave off his own adulthood — and an excuse to smoke more weed.

Things go accordingly until the noise starts to interfere with the Radners’ routine. Once they summon the police, the war is on.

“Neighbors” becomes a comedy of escalation. Like “The Campaign” and “Step Brothers” — or a lot of Will Ferrell movies, come to think of it — the film showcases a back-and-forth of puerile tricks. Another haze of one-upmanship.

What actually resonates is the relationship between Rogen and Byrne. They completely nail the love/hate dynamic of new parents who view their 30s as both a fresh chapter and a death sentence. Although a physical mismatch, these actors exude supreme comfort with each other. This helps make some of the film’s more questionable gags (a breastfeeding one in particular) less tacky.

For a set-up that isn’t exactly a showcase for strong female characters, Byrne (“Bridesmaids”) gets to be all kinds of funny — and not hide her Australian accent for once — as a former good-time girl converted to stay-at-home mom. One of the better early bits finds her organizing “baby’s first rave” as an excuse to get out of the house, only to fall asleep from gathering the sheer amount of gear it takes to travel with an infant.

Sure, the film (written by rookies Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien) introduces numerous contrivances that the actors can’t improv their way through. Like the fact the Radners’ entire block is filled with other homeowners who would certainly object to nightly frat keggers. (Could have solved that by putting the houses on a cul-de-sac.)

“Neighbors” (whose original title was “Townies”) builds to a rewarding climax, with Rogen and Efron locked in mortal combat. The master of sarcasm vs. the uberman. This hilarious brawl is inventively staged by director Nicholas Stoller (“Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) and echoes the epic ineptitude of close-quarters fight scenes in “Raising Arizona” and “Borat.”

“It escalated to a really crazy place,” Mac remembers during an epilogue months later.

He’ll one day say the same thing about marriage and parenthood.

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