By all rights, Neighbors ought to be just another brick in the wall built up by Judd Apatow and the many people whose career he started (Apatow, we should be clear, had nothing to do with the film, outside of being mentioned in the special thanks; but the writers, director, and lead all come from the Apatow Comedy Finishing School): boorish dudes learning, through filthy-minded misadventure, how to be somewhat less boorish. And that's basically the framework going on here. It stars Seth Rogen (because of course it fucking does) as a new father who is first kind of quietly pleased and then increasingly horrified when a fraternity movies into the house next door, and his initial flush of big-brotherly affection for the substance-fueled party life that he now gets to enjoy by proxy, and occasionally directly, turns into a slow-dawning awareness that he's too old for this shit. It is yet another facet of the character that Rogen always, always plays: caught on the cusp between "hedonism and a lack of responsibility is unbelievably fun and anything else must be a grating punishment" and "actually, responsibilty is kind of cool", always inching a little bit more towards full-fledged adulthood as the 32-year-old Rogen does the same thing himself.

This time, however, there is an unprecedented change to that scenario: an actual, plausible, psychologically resonant female character, in the form of Alter-Rogen's wife. She's played by Rose Byrne, who has been perfectly fine in many things, acutely good in a couple, and turns in the kind of film-stealing work here that absolutely just has to set her on the road to persistent stardom, if we're to keep up the pretext that we live in a moral universe. It's easy for Rogen to play a neurotic semi-mature enthusiast for parties and acts of pop-culture regurgitation; what Byrne's up to is far more interesting on every level, playing a woman who is slightly mature but doesn't entirely want to be, and gets increasingly thrilled at having chances to act out her desire to remain young and "with it" in increasingly dark ways. In the film's revenge-driven scenario, Rogen is the one who's overtly violent and obsessed; Byrne is the one who's actually dangerous, with maybe just a touch of real psychotic drive to her. And that she can do that while also having flawless comic timing - Rogen has never, ever had such fluid chemistry with anybody as the two of them have here, with blithe back-and-forth dialogue passages too lived-in to qualify as "banter", or the way the actors feed each other perfectly organic reaction shots that come just a half-beat off from what we might expect, to the exceptional benefit of the comedy - for that, Byrne is the film's easy best in show, giving one of the absolute best comic performances by a woman in a mainstream American film comedy in at least a couple of years. Which says a lot more about how mainstream American film comedy likes to utilise its females (the ones that aren't mocked for being fat are shrill nags) than anything, maybe, but it still counts.

Rogen and Byrne play Mac and Kelly Radner; the frat next door is headed up by Zac Efron as Teddy and Dave Franco as Pete, the leaders of a gangly club that's willing to let the adults in with open arms at first, only to have things turn south when one miscommunication leads to the cops coming in to deal with the noise. And from this point,the Radners and the college kids engage in a series of mutual attacks that range from petty annoyance to potentially life-threatening physical pranks (the movie plays - only once, which makes it land better - the "could this actually harm my baby" card in a way that manages to not kill the comedy dead). It being the case that director Nicholas Stoller (making his best film after three not-quite-there attempts) and writers Andrew J. Cohen & Brendan O'Brien prove this way that they understand a rule that the fuzzy "we're all cool bros" school of comedy that Neighbors largely belongs to frequently ignores: nasty people are funnier than nice people. Mac and Kelly, though our designated protagonists, are by no stretch of the imagination heroic; take a couple of objective steps back, and they probably do more clearly unethical and immoral things than Teddy does. This isn't something that Neighbors stresses; and the fact that it doesn't it part of why it works. But it's there, and the film would be nowhere near as electric without it.

Thematically, the film is stuck in a familiar wheelhouse, though the actors do a lot to sell it: Efron gives far and away the best performance of his career as a young libertine with just barely enough intelligence to know that if he were any smarter or more resistant to a steady stream of hedonism, he'd have to confront how empty his future looks; but for all his braggadocio, he's never able to completely block down panic about growing up. In this he is an excellent foil for the Radners, who (one suspects) aren't living exactly the life they'd have picked out, but are mostly happy with the way things have panned out; things like money and bad jobs are touched on, but never made the focus, and it's clear throughout that they're well-adjusted and settled in a comfortable way, not a quietly desperate one.

All that being said, the film has a cluster of flaws that keep it mired in "good enough" territory. The most pressing of these is that it's simply too damn shaggy: for something with such a clear driving conflict, Neighbors has a remarkable problem with building momentum, and it ends up feeling completely episodic. Clearly-improvised scenes dwindle on and on, and even the scripted moments trail off rather than ending with a snap (more than once, a scene hits its obvious button, and then goes on long enough to introduce some unresolved wrinkle that makes it feel deeply unsatisfying when it finally does cut). Like most narratives about parents but not about parenting, the baby (played by Elise and Zoey Vargas, an unearthly darling set of twins) has a remarkable tendency to evaporate in scenes where she's not inherent to the drama (the Radners, shall we say, have an extravagantly forgiving babysitter).

And it's also, frankly, a bit redundant in the joke department: it's one thing to present a bunch of 18- to 22-year-old boys as obsessed with dicks, that's just good documentary realism. But the film's own reliance on dick jokes is a bit tedious at times, maybe because those jokes tend to pile up in scenes where Byrne doesn't appear. And Byrne not appearing is the biggest problem Neighbors ever has.

Still and all, I found it funny enough - insert "comedy is subjective" boilerplate - if hardly revelatory at the level of theme or creativity. It's genuinely character-driven in a way that modern comedy isn't, often enough, and best of all, it dances in at just 96 minutes, a length of time that a comic film can actually sustain. For that rare nicety alone, I am prepared to offer it my soul.