“Neighbors 2”: Thinkpieces Rising

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The stars of Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising — Seth Rogen as the hapless dad Mac (Mac?) Radner, Rose Byrne as his equally hapless wife Kelly — disappear for about fifteen minutes during the first act. In their place, the movie’s main “antagonist,” freshman sorority wannabe and burgeoning feminist Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz) takes center stage. First she interrupts a giggly sorority introduction to express her distaste for it, only to find out that sororities in the United States are forbidden by the National Panhellenic Council to host parties. Later that day, she attends her first fraternity party, where she’s horrified by the male-driven debauchery on display. She returns to her dorm to commiserate and smoke weed — everyone in this movie likes smoking weed! — with two new friends Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein), who help her arrive at the idea of starting a new sorority in their own image.

How rare is it to see a mainstream studio comedy treat the thoughts and emotions of a young woman and her friends with this much attention and nuance? Rare enough that Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising has been labeled “feminist” and “progressive” by many observers, as well as not feminist and flimsily progressive by observers of those observers. The movie’s main conflict comes when Shelby’s fledgling sorority Kappa Nu moves into the house formerly occupied by the onetime fraternity bro Teddy (Zac Efron), who terrorized the Radners during the first movie and returns to do the same as a mentor figure for Kappa Nu this time around. Mac and Kelly balk at the return of hard partying to their block, especially in the midst of a 30-day period of escrow on their old home, during which their tentative new homeowners (Sam Richardson from Veep and Abbi Jacobson from Broad City, both amusing but underutilized) can drop their bid at the first sight of trouble. But Kappa Nu doesn’t want to stop — they’re on a mission of gender parity and drunken revelry that won’t be deterred by a dorky middle-aged dude and his pregnant wife.

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Before delving into the specific assets and drawbacks of Neighbors 2it’s worth puncturing the movie’s “progressive” reputation a tad. Yes, there are numerous jokes, many of them funny, about accidental sexism in everyday speech. Yes, Mac and Kelly’s next-door nemeses are young women presented largely without sexualization or condescension. And yes, Teddy’s best friend Pete from the first movie (Dave Franco) is revealed to be a gay man in the sequel, again without the eye-rolling or marginalization typically associated with that sort of reveal in movies like this.

(Caveat worth including here: I’m a straight, cisgender white man. Consider my assessment of this movie’s progressive leanings with a grain of privilege-tinged salt.)

But the movie gets a little clumsy with its feminist undertones and overtones. A climactic female empowerment speech from an unlikely source comes out of nowhere and would have been more powerful had the script done any work to build to it. Unlike in the first movie, when Teddy and his friends blossomed into fully-formed characters with lovable hearts and discernible points of view, the young women of Kappa Nu never break out in the same way, despite the best efforts of Moretz, Clemons, Feldstein and their supporting players. For a movie ostensibly about women’s issues, a lot of screentime is devoted to male hijinks and pratfalls. And, as culture critic Lindsay Zoladz notes, the movie is directed by a man (Nicholas Stoller of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, returning from the original) and the script is credited to five of them (Stoller, Rogen, Andrew Jay Cohen, Brendan O’Brien and Rogen’s frequent writing partner Evan Goldberg). Amanda Lund and Maria Blascucci contributed jokes and rewrites on-set, but they didn’t qualify in time for Writers’ Guild standards for credited writers. No one involved in the production thought to ask a woman to contribute upfront?

Perhaps it’s unfair to hold every movie to the standards of progressivism, which, as film critic Scott Tobias points out on Twitter, has little inherent bearing on a movie’s aesthetic achievement. But when a movie’s dialogue and storyline indicate ambitions towards pop cultural social justice, it’s opened itself up to criticism of the effectiveness of that approach. There’s much to like about the ideas in Neighbors 2 as compared to other similar movies, which vouch for their male protagonists even in their most chauvinistic modes. But the march towards onscreen diversity in all forms is far from over. This movie is just another step on that long, perhaps endless march.

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So is it funny? Yes, very! My longstanding phobia of all things vomit-related had me cringing at the first scene, a spiritual sequel of sorts to the gross-out breastfeeding scene from the first movie. But Rogen and Byrne once again make an inspired duo, and Byrne’s ability to speak in her native Australian accent only heightens her outstanding comic timing and off-kilter delivery. Meanwhile, Efron once again steals the movie as the surprisingly layered former bro searching for a new identity and a community that “values” him. The former tween star’s ability to mock his beefcake image even while the entire movie takes liberal aesthetic advantage of it continues to be a delightful surprise, especially from an actor who’s made some questionable choices elsewhere in his career (Dirty Grandpa????). On the margins, reliable comic seasonings like Hannibal Buress, Billy Eichner and Lisa Kudrow appear just long enough to make you wish they had more to do, but not so long that you get tired of their shtick.

As mentioned earlier, the movie loses steam in its final act, but a midpoint chase sequence through a tailgate rager is a deftly choreographed high point. A runner involving a pink dildo yields consistently strong returns, as does a tiny but inspired reference to racially charged police brutality from Teddy’s friend Garf (Jerrod Carmichael), which sparks one of the movie’s funniest visual gags. Teddy’s journey towards self-worth clashes with his increasing detachment from millennial culture in hilarious ways. Less successful is an extended bit involving two hijacked cell phone numbers and an ill-advised cross-continental trip, which is hampered by one of the most egregiously shoddy bits of green-screen in recent memory. I also detected an overcaffeinated vibe to many scenes, particularly those involving Rogen, who seems to shout much more of his dialogue than the actual setting of the scenes would require.

But this unlikely franchise still falls near the top of the heap among wide-release studio comedies in the 2010s. It lacks the meta theatrics and visual panache of the Jump Street movies, but — to damn it with the faintest of praise — it’s lightyears ahead of your Sandlers and your Ferrells. Without hailing it as a revolutionary act of subversive progressivism on a blockbuster scale, I can comfortably say it makes many smart choices where other movies would make dumb ones. I’d shell out for a sequel. Or, if the studio were truly progressive, a spinoff focused on the exploits of Kappa Nu. Is it too much to ask that women write and direct it? That would be progressive.

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