The slovenly, good-natured frat vs. family comedy “Neighbors” is little more than a series of goofy skits. The story follows the rising tension between tubby poppa bear Mac (Seth Rogen) and the college fraternity that buys the house next door. Mac and his wife, Kelly (“Bridesmaids’ ” Rose Byrne), are settling into the routine of married life and raising Stella, the cutest infant alive (played by the adorable twins Elise and Zoey Vargas).
What they’ve not come to terms with is becoming painfully uncool. When they try to arrange “baby’s first rave,” piling on kiddie equipment for the outing as if they’re packing to scale Everest, they conk out, exhausted.
It seems like a new chance at reclaiming their youth, then, when hedonistic Delta House purchases the home adjacent to theirs. The new parents take a voyeuristic interest in the kids’ goings-on and make a polite, reasonable request to keep the noise down. The frat president, Teddy (Zac Efron, frequently shirtless and almost grotesquely ripped), hospitably invites them in for a tour, introduces his well-mannered brothers, and gets the married couple baked at the housewarming party. Those cordial relations are not to last, as each side begins to tread on the other’s toes, first innocently, then tromping hard for revenge.
As a simple story of escalating sabotage, the piece can afford to be meandering and disjointed as long as there’s a belly laugh every couple of minutes. There are daffy flashback set pieces with Teddy narrating the frat’s proud history, inventing toga parties and beer pong, among other collegiate breakthroughs. There’s character humor, with Lisa Kudrow playing the university dean who describes her job as avoiding bad headlines, while shrugging off anything that won’t trigger an exposé.
An air-bag sabotage campaign against Mac is truly explosively funny. The lactating Kelly has a scene that breaks new ground in gross-out bodily function humor. The action grows more rampageous and outlandish as it gathers steam. At one point Rogen and Efron face off mano-a-mano, using sex toys as martial arts weapons. If you note the unlikely nature of such a duel, you are not this film’s target audience.
Like director Nick Stoller’s earlier efforts “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “The Five-Year Engagement,” this film sees the good in its characters, even when they are at their worst. Efron is not a natural comedian — he’s the spiritual heir of buff, bland Joe Piscopo — but his character is well-written, with relatable anxieties about graduating into a world where brains mean more than cobblestone abs and an easy smile. Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Dave Franco have colorful roles as lesser Deltas who share a certain anatomical gift. Byrne seems to be pedaling as fast as she can to keep up with goofball Rogen, but that’s a dynamic one sees in some real-life relationships.
Stoller is on surer ground in character-establishing scenes than surreal party-down psychedelia. His camera whips you around until you’re not sure where you’re looking but have a feeling you might be sick. “Neighbors” isn’t my favorite flavor of yuks. I think there’s more to admire in the finicky precision of Wes Anderson’s work, where every scene advances a coherent story, than in assembling a crew of ad-libbing cut-ups and hollering “Go!” But he who seeks a 96-minute mind-wipe could do a lot worse than this free-floating bros-against-breeders rumpus.