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Naughty 'Neighbors' a good mix of the silly and sweet

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'Neighbors' is a bit like 'Animal House' on steroids
'Neighbors' naughtiness ensues when frat boy Efron meets family guy Rogen
Crude and lewd 'Neighbors' also smart, silly and sweet

The outrageous new movie "Neighbors" is filled with the perverse pleasure of watching the R-rated growing pains of Generation Next — including the young and restless comedy players in Hollywood responsible for it. Reality bites everyone eventually, so welcome to the neighborhood.

Starring Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne and Zac Efron, this raunchy unrooting of a settled suburban idyll exposes the considerable angst of emerging adulthood with a kind of scatological fervor designed to elicit oodles of inappropriate laughs.

It succeeds. Despite a strain of sweetness and considerable smarts, the film is a bit like "Animal House" on steroids — and with penis molds. If crude and lewd offend, beware.

With director Nicholas Stoller ("Get Him to the Greek," "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"), the new in-crowd crew in charge is a decade or so behind genre auteur Judd Apatow. His "40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up" and "This Is 40," something of a comic trilogy on the art of getting older in an uncensored and unfiltered universe, certainly informs "Neighbors" acting out.

The script by Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O'Brien is a clever one, which always helps. Like Stoller and Rogen, the pair spent formative years in Apatow's sphere and they stick with the core proposition of young adults dragged kicking and screaming toward some modicum of maturity. Within all the salacious silliness, they exhibit a knack for relationship dialogue that rings true.

The "Neighbors" naughtiness takes place on a lovely street graced by grassy lawns and older homes with lots of character. Mac (Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Byrne), who met in college and married soon after, are settling into life as adoring new parents to Stella, a serious cutie played by Elise and Zoey Vargas, whose toothless smiles, sweet babbling and general good humor threaten to steal the show.

The couple is clinging to the notion that they can be as cool and carefree as ever and still be responsible parents. Those competing desires first come into focus when they decide to take the tot with them to a rave. It ends before they ever get out the front door, with everyone asleep and surrounded by the mounds of paraphernalia modern babies require. This is, in the Apatow tradition, a white yuppie world. It is telling that production notes refer to the Radners' smartly tricked-out, sprawling two-story as a starter home.

That missed rave is the proverbial tip of iceberg. The rest of the berg moves into the burbs when fraternity Delta Psi and its 50 or so brothers buy the house next door. This is essentially a test of Mac and Kelly's commitment to parenthood.

Efron is frat president Teddy Sanders, the shirtless smooth talker happy to take the reefer the Radners present — a peace offering the couple hopes will establish their cool cred and buy them quiet nights. Teddy is charismatic and reassuring, but his real mission, with the help of his smarter No. 2, Pete (Dave Franco, younger brother of James), is to throw a party so legendary it will make the Delta Psi wall of fame.

The comedy comes along with the clashes between the frat and the family. Delta Psi's sex-drugs-and-rock-'n'-roll-saturated scene eventually drives Mac and Kelly to call the cops. War is declared and everyone fights dirty. A Robert De Niro costume party, sabotaged air bags and candles made from those aforementioned molds all figure into the escalating conflict. Lodging an official complaint with the college dean is as good an excuse as any to get Lisa Kudrow, wickedly droll in her officious officialdom, involved.

Surfacing in all the muck is the idea that these spouses are actually in it together, and that is nothing to laugh at. Even excellent R-rated sendups like last year's twisted apocalyptic tale, "This Is the End," tend to stay determinedly on the surface. Indeed, "The Hangover" celebrated its spot there.

Emotionality has always existed in Stoller's work, more visible in his writing — the unabashed affection in "The Muppets" written with Jason Segel for example, but it could also be found in the bond between Russell Brand's bad-boy rocker and Jonah Hill's geek in "Greek." By allowing sensitivity to work its way into so many nooks and crannies of "Neighbors," including the frat house, Stoller might be changing the balance of this universe.

For Efron, "Neighbors" puts the actor into that charming bad-boy corner he's occupied so well since his "High School Musical" breakout. Efron's attempts at more serious characters have been mixed: his doctor in 2013's historical drama "Parkland," for example, was embarrassing, while his ambitious young Broadway hopeful in 2009's "Me and Orson Welles" was undervalued.

Byrne seems to have bailed on drama entirely. After the darkness of the FX legal thriller "Damages," the actress is making the most of the self-effacing comedy so often demanded of pretty women. Although she's done lighter roles before, including working with Stoller on "Get Him to the Greek," her conniving maid of honor wannabe in 2011's "Bridesmaids" represented her official coming-out party.

Meanwhile, Rogen has taken up permanent residence on the comfortable comedy couch. His puppy-dog persona continues to buy the actor lots of goodwill, even when his characters don't deserve it. Mac isn't a bad guy, more of a frustrated new dad pushed to extremes with no clue how to fight except by using playground rules — physical and juvenile.

That persona will probably see Rogen through a few more years, but like "Neighbors," it will be interesting to see what the actor is capable of when he really grows up.

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'Neighbors'

MPAA rating: R for pervasive language, strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use throughout

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Playing: In general release

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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