Back in 2014, Neighbors became a hit and marked, if not a maturation of Seth Rogen and his foul-mouthed comedy style, at least a shift toward more mature themes, particularly those of fatherhood and marriage. Produced for a modest sum, and with a worldwide box office haul of more than $270 million, it is now followed by a no-brainer sequel here to strengthen Rogen’s dad brand. Is Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising necessary? No. Is it formulaic? Yes. Is it really funny? Definitely.
The action picks up with Mac and Kelly Radner, played once again with fantastic chemistry by Rogen and Rose Byrne. Still grappling with being parents when they themselves still feel like kids, trying to maintain their cool and relevance, they have another baby on the way and are 30 days away from selling their home and fleeing to the suburbs.
Just when the Radners think they’re done with out-of-control college kids forever, a sorority moves into the house next door, the same one occupied by the frat in the last movie. This isn’t your usual sorority full of prim, proper, wholesome young ingénues. Founded by a trio of first-year college students—Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein)—Kappa Nu, as they dub themselves, is a sisterhood based on raging and avoiding the “rapey” scene at the school’s frats. Their hard-partying ways, of course, conflict with Mac and Kelly’s interests, and the battle between young and less-young begins anew.
That Kappa Nu is a reaction to both staid sorority life and the sexist double standards of the male-dominated college system—an early scene at a frat party may very well make your skin crawl if you’ve ever had any women in your life you care about—is indicative of the underlying progressive thread in Neighbors 2. Sure, they may be down to get wild, but these young women are trying to create a safe space, where they’re in control, and where they don’t have to worry about being harassed and intimidated.
Zac Efron’s Teddy Sanders is back, shoehorned into the plot, though he makes good use of his time and arguably becomes the film’s center. After being kicked out of his apartment when his frat bro/roommate Pete (Dave Franco) gets engaged to his boyfriend, he turns to the one thing he’s ever been good at and serves as a party mentor for Kappa Nu. His goofy, super-hot-lost-puppy-dog shtick makes him the perfect foil for the 18-year-old girls. Teddy teaches them how to do things like pay their rent, and they in turn move him toward enlightenment by showing him why things like a Pimps-and-Hoes party isn’t particularly cool from a woman’s perspective.
This empowerment thread occasionally gets left behind for other concerns, and there are missed opportunities to add texture and depth to the message. But at its best, Sorority Rising puts a fresh spin on well-worn college comedy tropes—a feminist icon party is a brilliant idea that I hope is a real thing that happens, and one prank in particular is both horribly foul and cleverly skewers gender hypocrisy when it comes to gross-out comedy.
Neighbors 2 falls into many of the same traps as a lot of comedy sequels, chiefly that, instead of a coherent story, it plays out more like a series of hilarious bits strung together into a loose narrative. The first film wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, but the arc here is somehow even more obvious and predictable. Clocking in at a hair over 90 minutes, there are times when Neighbors 2 feels the weight of filling the space, which manifests in the pacing and momentum. It also shows the scattered hands of five credited writers: Rogen, Evan Goldberg, director Nicholas Stoller, Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien. There are a lot of montages—at times it’s like watching a montage of montages. We get it, Ike Barinholtz looks like a terrifying meth-head Juggalo when he slaps on a clown wig and cackles. Once was enough.
But even through these doldrums, the movie is never far from a moment of manic comedy glory. For every overextended gag that runs on too long, there’s one like a weed heist that borders on the surreal and could have been lifted from a suspense thriller. The best jokes, the ones that truly stick, work because the absurdity is based in truth, and a core sweetness and humanity.
Without a traditional villain, it’s easy to root for and sympathize with everyone involved—there’s no big bad, just incompatible goals. Mac and Kelly are freaked out by having another baby, and Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne capture the inherent fears of parents watching their children grow up. They want to be supportive of the sorority; they look at these young women and see their own daughter in a few years. But they also want a good night’s rest and to sell their house. Rogen picks up a role Tom Hanks played on the regular once upon a time, and gives it a weed- and dick-joke-infused update.
Teddy is adrift, watching all his friends move forward with their lives while he treads water. He’s stuck in that awkward post-college, what-the-hell-do-I-do-with-my-life limbo between youth and adulthood where it looks like everyone else has it figured out but him. Efron once again shows that he can be funny as hell, and Teddy may be the only character who clearly changes or grows.
For the sorority’s part, all of their bluster masks how afraid and insecure Shelby, Beth, Nora and the rest are to be on their own for the first time. They desperately try to carve out a place of their own in a world that marginalizes them at every turn. It’s unfortunate that they’re not particularly fleshed out as characters, even in comparison to their frat boy predecessors. Moretz, Clemons and Feldstein do what they can with the material. They’re engaging to watch and all have strong comedy muscles to flex, but the script never gives them much to dig into.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising falls into typical sequel traps, lacks character development and has a haphazard script, but it’s reflective of the societal forces that spawned it. Women are sick of being pushed aside, same-sex marriage is a normal part of the landscape, weed isn’t a big deal. Neighbors 2 is a comedy with more on its mind than just laughs, but fortunately, it’s also damn funny.
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Writers: Nicholas Stoller, Seth Rogen, Andrew Jay Cohen, Brendan O’Brien, Evan Goldberg
Starring: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Chloe Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons, Beanie Feldstein, Ike Barinholtz, Dave Franco
Release Date: May 20, 2016