Seth Rogen for some years now has been the movie star who least resembles a movie star. Much of the time on screen, he is stoned. All of the time, he is overweight and usually unkempt. Not coincidentally, he’s also hilarious. This is in fact a fine line to tread, for someone who expects to remain employed in an industry predicated on dreams. Rogen is not the proverbial man that women want and other men want to be. He’s closer to the man women know they could have and other men hope they’re not.
In “Neighbors,” he’s back as a young father, still getting stoned, still overweight, but doing all right for himself. He’s married to his college sweetheart, an erstwhile exchange student from Australia (Rose Byrne, so charming you almost forget she’s a knockout). We meet this couple, the Radners, as they’re revving up a bout of enthusiastic but infinitely awkward coitus on a kitchen chair in their new house. It’s clear from their interruptus pep talking that theirs normally is a scheduled sort of deed, and for a moment in their suddenly grown-up lives they feel half their age. Then baby keeps ogling from a walker, quashing the mood for the very act that begat her, and the circle of early middle age is complete.
As if they weren’t already aware of their burgeoning squarehood, the couple soon finds that a fraternity has bought the house next door. The frat president is a sensitive bro with the chisel-tacular torso and effortless bland handsomeness of a Zac Efron, played here by Zac Efron. He sizes up the situation similarly to the couple and determines things could get ugly. Diplomatically he invites the old people (his word, not mine) over for a bit of a bender and bonding. He then proceeds to declare outright war when the norms have to phone the po-po to get some peace and quiet.
This sets up what in lesser hands could be an utterly disposable night at the movies, but director Nicholas Stoller, who has been involved in several of the more genuine comedies of recent years (“The Muppets,” “The Five-Year Engagement,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) lets the situation breathe, and a weird thing happens: All of the main characters reveal inner lives, almost like real cinema.
Now, this isn’t to say “Neighbors” skimps on the juvenile humor — far from it! If there was a body part or fluid that made you laugh milk through your nose in seventh grade, chances are it stars in a stupid gag at some point (the movie earns its R-rating). And every person in a position of authority is hilariously corrupt or inept, including Lisa Kudrow as a brittle college dean and Hannibal Buress as a cop half-assing his job.
The movie works, mostly, because we care about what happens with these folks. Rogen and Byrne feel like a real couple, with just enough acid to keep their teamwork interesting. Part of them wants to celebrate when a cross between “Animal House” and “Project X” lands a few feet from their porch, with ample beer pong and black-lit dance fights to go around. But they, like most grown-ups, have scaled their world down to its basic elements: getting enough sleep, maybe having sex once every so ever, making sure baby isn’t fussing, trying not to go broke. When this seemingly blah existence comes under threat, they retaliate with a vengeance.
We may not aspire to be Seth Rogen per se, but when this is the on-screen life he cuts — committing criminal mischief with his partner and sneaking pizza into bed to celebrate — we see how he stays firmly in the Hollywood pantheon.