Comic veteran Seth Rogen and tabloid mainstay Zac Efron received top billing and prime poster placement for "Neighbors," the parents-versus-party-animals comedy that won the weekend box office with a surprisingly strong $51-million debut. But amid all the testosterone-fueled antics, Rose Byrne has emerged as the movie's secret weapon.
The 34-year-old Australian actress plays Kelly Radner, who joins husband Mac (Rogen) in an all-out war against the frat house across the way led by Teddy (Efron). Kelly, however, is not the typical beautiful, disapproving wife who's constantly trying to get her schlubby hubby to act his age.
She's just as committed to battling Teddy's frat as Mac is, if not more so, which allows Byrne to subvert some genre cliches while also showing off her comedic chops.
Numerous reviewers have praised Byrne as the movie's anchor. L.A. Weekly film critic Amy Nicholson wrote, "Byrne is the movie's MVP, thanks to a script that does what few comedies allow: It lets the wife earn some laughs. Tequila shot for tequila shot, Byrne is at the center, driving the action. … She's so funny that you wonder once again why the Sandlers and Apatows of the world waste their women by writing them as shrews."
The Wire's David Sims wrote, "What makes the movie so charming is that Kelly is going through this alongside Mac, rather than dragging him into adulthood with their (adorable) baby in her other arm. While everyone involved in 'Neighbors' is doing sterling work, it's Byrne who walks away with the film by making Kelly a well-rounded, conflicted person, rather than the film's fun cop who has to tell everyone the boring truth."
Nikki Rocco, Universal's president of domestic distribution, also credited Byrne with helping to broaden the film's audience, which was 53% female on opening weekend; the same percentage was over the age of 25.
"The appeal [of 'Neighbors'] is not what you would think it would be for a raunchy comedy — which is heavily young male," Rocco told The Times. "I think that has a lot to do with Rose Byrne and the fact that it's about a family with a baby."
For Byrne, "Neighbors" represents the second-biggest opening of her career, behind only the superhero reboot "X-Men: First Class," in which she had a supporting role (and not counting "Star Wars: Episode II," in which she had a small background part). It could also help solidify her reputation as a deft comedic actress.
Over the course of her career, Byrne has done drama, most notably on the FX legal thriller "Damages" (for which she earned two Emmy nominations), and horror ("28 Weeks Later," the two "Insidious" movies), and even cameoed in a few epics ("Troy," "Episode II"). But it was the ensemble female comedy "Bridesmaids," in which she played the passive-aggressive snob Helen, that proved to be her coming-out party.
Byrne's upcoming movies include the Tina Fey-Jason Bateman comedy "This Is Where I Leave You" and "Spy," an espionage comedy that will reunite her with "Bridesmaids" director Paul Feig and co-star Melissa McCarthy. If Byrne can continue to shine in such roles, she might even get her own starring vehicle sometime.