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 towards more mature thematic concerns, particularly those of fatherhood and marriage. Produced for a modest sum, and with a worldwide box office haul of more than $270 million, it’s two years later and the no-brainer sequel is here to strengthen Rogen’s dad brand.
Is Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising necessary? No. Is it formulaic? Yes. Is it really damn funny? Definitely. This is a movie that begins with sex vomit and goes from there.
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 they 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. But this isn’t your usual sorority full of prim, proper, wholesome young ingénues. Founded by the trio of first-year 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 make your skin crawl if you’ve ever had any women in your life you care about—is indicative of the overt 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 Sorority Rising’s center (he also gets slathered with brisket grease at one point). After being kicked out of his apartment when his frat bro/roommate Pete (Dave Franco) gets engaged to his boyfriend, he’s adrift and 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. He teaches them how to do practical things like pay their rent, and they in turn move him towards enlightenment by showing him why things like a Pimps and Hoes party isn’t particularly appealing from a woman’s perspective.
This empowerment thread occasionally gets lost and 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, welcome feminist spin on well-worn college party 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 in both movies and real life.
Neighbors 2 falls into the same traps as many previous comedy sequels, chiefly that, instead of a coherent story, it plays out 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: Seth 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—and there’s too much repetition. We get it, Ike Barinholtz looks like a terrifying meth-head Juggalo when he slaps on a clown wig and cackles. Once was enough. (Though a running baby-with-a-vibrator joke is also great throughout—at least there are no veins.)
Even through these doldrums, the movie is never far from a moment of manic comedy glory. For every overextended gags 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 the sweetness and humanity at the core.
Without a traditional villain, it’s easy to like and root for and sympathize with everyone involved—there’s no big bad, just incompatible, conflicting goals. Mac and Kelly are freaked out by the prospect of 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 the kind of role Tom Hanks played on the regular once upon a time and gives it a weed-and-dick-joke-infused update.
Teddy is lost, watching all of 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 phase where it looks like everyone else has it figured out but him; a limbo between youth and adulthood. Efron once again shows that he can be funny as hell, and Teddy is 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 well-defined or fleshed out as characters, even in comparison to their frat boy predecessors, because that would give them a more substantial impact—there’s one real scene where they bond, and that’s it. 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, nor does it let them take the material and go nuts with it.
The secondary characters in Neighbors were one of the film’s strengths, adding contour to this world. In Neighbors 2, they feel like a liability. As the main trio sorority sisters are barely sketched out, the side players are virtually nonexistent, with only Christine (Awkwafina) leaving any impression at all. Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz) gets a few laughs, but he’s otherwise inconsequential, and his wife, Paula (Carla Gallo), adds even less. The best side character is Jerrod Carmichael, Garf from the original movie, who gets one blistering, topical moment early on alongside fellow returnee Hannibal Buress.
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. All of which is admirable. Neighbors 2 is a comedy with more on its mind than just laughs, and fortunately, for all of its flaws, it’s also damn funny. [Grade: B-]