I come to sing the praises of Nicholas Stoller. The director of the uproariously funny Neighbors isn’t famous like the movie’s stars, and he doesn’t receive much credit on his own because he’s part of Judd Apatow’s stable. (Apatow’s raunchy sense of humor tends to overwhelm whatever authorial sensibility Stoller shows.) Yet with this movie, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Get Him to the Greek, Stoller has turned in consistently better comic work than Apatow himself, not to mention other Apatow directors like Paul Feig and David Gordon Green, as delightful as they’ve been. His current collegiate comedy is the best work he’s done to date and the funniest thing I’ve seen this season.
The film starts with Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne), proud parents of an adorable baby girl, watching to see who will buy the big house next door to theirs. They’re horrified when the buyers turn out to be the local university’s chapter of the Delta Psi Beta fraternity, headed by president Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), who’s determined to party his way into fraternity legend during his senior year. The Delta Psis’ late-night shindigs keep the baby awake, and despite some initial friendliness, relations between the frat and the family soon approach all-out war.
Not so long ago, Rogen would have played the orgiastic frat boy. He’s only 32 years old, and though his bulky frame and facial hair have always made him seem older than he is, he still would seem to be miscast as the frazzled dad telling the college boys to keep the noise down. However, the movie manages to turn his Falstaffian vigor into an asset by making Mac into a young father who’s not that far removed from his own hard-partying past. Mac gives the Deltas his weed, spends a first night getting drunk with them, and thinks he’s down with the kids. The Radners care about seeming cool, which proves to be more fertile comic ground than making them into straitlaced suburbanites.
Rogen is matched by the slender Byrne, who intrigues me. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen an actor so inept in straightforward dramas (Troy, the Insidious movies, TV’s Damages) and yet so blisteringly funny in comedies (Get Him to the Greek, Bridesmaids). Using her native Australian accent here, she delivers a showpiece scene when Kelly successfully sows internal dissension in the frat, getting Teddy’s girlfriend (Ali Cobrin) and best friend Pete (Dave Franco) into bed with each other by making out with both of them, to Mac’s astonishment. If that’s not enough, she also gets a scene when a mightily pissed Kelly gives Mac a scarring look at her lactating breasts, and a sequence involving a discarded condom that leads to Kelly taking a swing at an ER doctor (Jason Mantzoukas) — the doc more than has it coming, too.
The script by first-time feature writers Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien does a nice job of covering its bases, as when a scene gratifyingly responds to the oft-heard criticism of Apatow movies that the women are there to act mature and kill the buzz while the men misbehave and win the laughs. I like the discord between Teddy and Pete, which has to do with Pete having perspective on fraternity life that Teddy doesn’t have. And I like the fact that neither the parents nor the frat is entirely in the right here, with both taking hostilities too far.
Still, we judge comedies on how funny they are, and the plentiful laughs here come from every quarter, including from Ike Barinholtz of TV’s The Mindy Project as the Radners’ friend and co-conspirator and Lisa Kudrow as a negligent university dean who refuses to do anything about the fraternity that might generate bad press. As for Efron, he slips into this scatological medium so easily that you won’t remember that he once starred in the High School Musical series, especially when Teddy and Pete come up with rhyming equivalents to the old frat-boy saw “bros before ho’s.” (Pete’s “Male erection before One Direction” sticks out in my mind.)
The movie can afford to give away some of its best gags in its ubiquitous trailer, because it has so many other jokes, like the flashback sequences to Delta Psi’s past or the two sex scenes between Mac and Kelly that both get crashed. There’s a nicely executed dance-off between Mac and Teddy, but even that doesn’t match the climactic fistfight between them, which is one of the funniest movie fight sequences I’ve ever seen and a masterpiece of physical comedy. Even the baby’s reaction shots are perfectly timed. If that isn’t a sign of a comedy that’s firing on all cylinders, I don’t know what is.
Starring Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, and Zac Efron. Directed by Nicholas Stoller. Written by Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien. Rated R.