Just when I’m complaining about the studio films this year, they drop two worthwhile motion pictures. The Nice Guys has grown on me as I read and think more about it. Another less good, but surprisingly solid film is, yes, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, the sequel to the youthful search vs. mid life crisis battle of Neighbors (2014). That was a well oiled comedy that shot out jokes with the speed of a machine gun, and often hit its broad target. I’m going to attempt to seriously dig into this silly comedy, which is something often not done with this genre, but it should be because there’s sooo much that can be done with comedy.
Neighbors 2 trades a frat for a sorority and the target becomes more specific. Nicholas Stoller returns to direct Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as Mac and Kelly Radner who have just bought a new house and sold their old house to a young couple. The couple has 30 days to inspect the house but the unruly sorority that has just moved in threatens Mac and Kelly’s final transformation into adulthood. If they lose this war they own two houses and have two babies to take care of (Kelly is pregnant!).
The sorority, Kappa Nu, gets as much set up as Mac and Kelly and initially the filmmakers plant us on their side. Nora (Beanie Feldstein), Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and queen bee Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) try to rush a sorority and realize that sorority’s suck and greek culture is pretty sexist. Only frats can throw parties and when they do, the girls are sexualized, drinks are highly questionable, and frat bros be lurking. So they decide to start Kappa Nu, a sorority where the male gaze is blinded and partying is female empowerment.
Elsewhere, Zac Efron’s Teddy finds himself in a place that you’d find a Seth Rogen character from the mid aughts, albeit with 0% body fat. His friends have moved on from college life. Dave Franco’s Pete has come out as gay since the last film and there’s nothing but love for him here. Teddy runs (literally) to his old frat house, which has been bought by Kappa Nu, and in an attempt to reclaim old glory he becomes their Obi-Wan mentor of partying.
Cue the comedic warfare. Efron and Byrne deserve polite golf claps for their comedic chops. I’m shocked at how funny this film is and how it uses varied styles of comedy to enhance its themes. It finds weapons from one liners to gross out gags to visual gags to intelligent observations about college culture to slapstick. Only one big joke completely misses the mark.
What makes the comedy so defined is that the most of the jokes are embedded in its themes of equality and gender. The humor is rooted in truth, a key ingredient most studio comedies forget. The Radner’s support the girls intentions (they have a daughter of their own after all) but their allegiance to adulthood requires them to ask the girls to stop partying, which the girls see as establishment pushing back against their mission for equality.
There are a couple jokes with such pristine set up and execution that I was howling with laughter. HOWLING. A mid-film chase sequence is the best action scene of the year (and maybe the funniest) with infinitely more style and quirk than any of the sUpErHeRo offerings we’ve had in 2016.
While it’s consistently entertaining, one wishes that it’s machine gun pace took time to reload and allow some breathing room for story and to add nuance to its characters. It’s built through sequences jumping from gag to gag and plays like an SNL episode stuck on fast forward. There’s so much energy that it doesn’t know what to do with it and ends up missing opportunities to add a necessary dimension.
In a way, this is Seth Rogen’s reconciliation with the raunchy films about young dudes grappling with adulthood that he’s been making for the past decade, and under a feminist microscope he realizes they’re kinda sexist. Dudes be dumb. Rogen and co. have now created a comedy that’s not only trying to actively engage with issues of equality and gender, but with an entire sub genre of cinema.
Young people want change so they rebel and while they can be stupid, it’s only because they’re heartfelt about progress. Adults have their own battle called being an adult where the battle is to try to figure out how to be a good adult. It’s a more interesting duel than its predecessor with youthful progression head butting maturity still learning to be mature.
Teddy finds himself trapped not only between millennials and gen-xers, but also youth and adulthood. Mid-film he switches sides and Neighbors 2 adds more funny thematic nuggets to its entrée: generational collisions and the move into adulthood. Efron plays Teddy like Benjamin Braddock from The Graduate as if he’d grown up in the 21st century. He’s at once a charming goofball but with the unaware stupidity of the modern bro.
Neighbors 2 suggests that action can only become progressive when it comes from a place of compassion. It explores how action—and lack of action—straddles the line between being progressive and being an asshole.
It doesn’t paint the girls as they initially see themselves either. They’re as monstrous and dumb as the boys were in the first film (and just as funny). By initially starting the film in favor of the girls sorority who point out decade old sexist ideas embedded in culture, Neighbors 2 then subverts expectations when the Radner’s ask them to stop partying for 30 days. In doing this, the film shifts from funny comedic set up into a funny comedic set up with thick ideas to chew on and now there’s no known structure to adhere to. It’s at this point that Neighbors 2 steps into completely new territory for the college/party genre. Isn’t that kinda nuts?
With the Radner’s request, the girls are forced to push back against established power structures, which is why they created the sorority in the first place, but by doing this they’re becoming the exact thing they despised. Yet, for a film so focused on equality, it’s one big sin is that its pace is so quick, and structure so loose, that it never calms down to establish the girls as fleshed out characters. They’re a collective group rather than individuals.
The film goes far enough to make the audience perhaps even dislike them; a semi bold choice when you consider that the film doesn’t resolve itself with a typical climax. The climax is actually, if you can believe it, one that is a calm display of “hey, let’s hug this out.” It’s a film about positivity and how to create that positivity. It’s this years Magic Mike XXL, and while nowhere near as exquisitely crafted as that film, it’s of the same warm spirit with similar progressive ambitions.
Some have argued that its progressive ideas are shoe-horned in, but that strikes me as a regressive view. The entire aim of Neighbors 2 is a retelling/critique of the Neighbors with a feminist update. Had this been just a subplot I’d probably agree, but from beginning to end it’s a film focused—to the detriment of it’s own story—on exploring these ideas with comedy. The unfortunate drawback of its machine gun joke structure is the lack of defining traits for the women, which is a tad hypocritical and holds it back from being a balanced film like Neighbors.
I would also maybe buy the shoehorn critique if its progressive ideas were one-dimensional the whole time, but they’re not in the end. Neighbors 2 has no problem showing us these woman at their worst. An even closer view shows that it’s a film not just about being progressive—it’s a film about how being progressive doesn’t mean that you can’t be as shitty as those who hold regressive views, which allows the film to unexpectedly land in a place of, dare I say, compassion. So, Neighbors 2 is more of a loosely connected joke fest rather than a proper story, but if you can believe it, Neighbors 2 is also consistently funny AND woke af.