I hesitate to say that if you liked Neighbors, you’ll like Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. In many ways, it’s the same exact film as its predecessor. In others, it’s a different and ultimately better film, but one that certain fans of the first might not appreciate.
But in terms of story, it’s another movie, another noisy college Greek Society for Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) to contend with. Only this time, the stakes are a little higher. It’s not just that the new feminist sorority next door, Kappa Nu, is noisy, it’s that the Radners have just purchased a new home and they are in a 30-day escrow with the buyers of their current house. So if the new buyers stop by at any time and are displeased, they can back out of the deal. A different enough set-up, but Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising eventually returns to Neighbors formula of an absurdly destructive prank war with the college kids next door. Teddy (Zac Efron), the frat leader from the first film, returns and is on the Radner’s team this time around, but any changes only mask that it’s essentially the same film in formula and spirit.
The humor is still very similar: raunchy, gross out, vulgar. Fitting for a film involving college kids (and who I’m sure are the target audience), only this time it might be more so. Some gags are downright repulsive, hilariously so. The film is certainly funny (I laughed consistently throughout), though it’s not particularly revolutionary. The humor and performances are as good as the first.
Where Sorority Rising deviates and improves on Neighbors is in its worldview. The inherent problem of the first film was that centering on a frat house inevitably leads to some rather bro-ish, sophomorically patriarchal humor, dick and fart jokes galore. The film still retains this sensibility, but is undeniably more feminist. The new sorority is founded by Shelby (Chloe Grace-Moretz), Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Felstein) as a subversion of sexist rules that prevent sororities from hosting their own parties and a rejection of the culture of rape and misogyny that permeates fraternity life. Mac and Kelly, who have a young daughter and another on the way, are sympathetic to this and don’t want to stand in the way of young women feeling safe and empowered, especially on a college campus, yet adult practicalities stand in the way of youthful idealism. But, without spoiling anything, the film eventually comes to the conclusion that feminism benefits all and isn’t something to be tolerated, but embraced and celebrated.
Due to these progressive leanings, I’ve seen the film compared to two ideologically similar films from last year: Mad Max: Fury Road and Magic Mike XXL. All three films have been praised for “sneaking” feminism into unexpected genres, whether it’s the action film, gross-out comedy or whatever the hell genre XXL is (erotic musical drama? Stripper road comedy?).
But Sorority Rising partly fails where the first two succeeded. That’s not to say the film is disingenuous about its gender politics. It’s not. There is no lip service being paid, no mixed messages being sent, no confusion in regards to what the film is trying to say vs. what it’s actually saying. The problem is that the film says these things rather loudly and heavy-handedly, spelling it out for you from the get-go, never for a second letting you forget what its goals are. It stands in (inferior) contrast to Fury Road and XXL, where those film’s progressive ideas on gender, masculinity, female autonomy and sexuality developed organically and felt woven into the film’s very fabric. In those films, the feminism is certainly there, it’s just not beating you over the head with a giant rubber dildo like Sorority Rising.
This is a problem when we think about whom this film is for. Is the message of female empowerment meant for women (of all ages, but primarily young women)? Yes, probably. Although if this is the case, it feels like preaching to the choir, since I think there are many women who know it’s better to live in a community where their oppression and sexual assault isn’t normalized. So really, it’s not unsafe to assume that the film’s message is really aimed at young, college aged men. But because the film is screaming its Point from the rooftops, even the most unenlightened, uncritical, cinematically illiterate viewer will pick up on what the film is saying. And I think that hurts the film, since most of the bros who come to see this film are probably expecting a dumb, raunchy Seth Rogen comedy. Instead, they’re going to think they accidentally strolled into a Women’s Lib course. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I’m skeptical of how many young dudes would respond to, let alone accept, this rather blatant challenge to their patriarchal privilege. Call me cynical, but I expect most of them would reject it, if not walk out of the theater right in the middle of the film. A subtler approach might not have gotten the point across so explicitly, but might have achieved the desired effect.
But that’s only the first of the two prongs of the film issues. The second has to do with craft, form and filmmaking, which are respectively non-existent, bland and lazy. This is another area where Neighbors 2 fails in comparison to Fury Road and XXL. Director Nicholas Stoller falls into the trap that most American comedies have fallen into for the past fifteen-to-twenty years, one of over-reliance on semi-improvised dialogue and performance for much of its style and humor. This approach may result in a funny, quotable line here or there, but makes for rather uninspiring, unmemorable cinema. Granted, Stoller does have more inventiveness than peers such as Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Trainwreck) Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers) and especially Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy, the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot). A riff on the airbag gags from the first film gets a solid laugh purely from its framing, and there’s a pretty wonderful set-piece that involves a weed heist at a tailgate, but by and large, Stoller’s direction, and even the performances of the actors, lack commitment and feel lazy, an attempt to give an impression of “realistic,” off-the-cuff energy without actually having any of it.
Take the awkward scene immediately following the aforementioned weed heist, the shortcomings all the more glaring due this juxtaposition. The scene involves the Radners discussing Teddy’s life goals with him. It’s filmed in a typical shot/reverse-shot set up, except its cut much faster than you’re used to seeing, even in modern comedy films. It’s meant to give the scene speed and energy, like it’s a witty back-and-forth that Howard Hawks used to do in His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby. But Hawks would shoot a scene in a medium shot with all the characters in the same frame, and the actors would actually have to talk that fast and the scene would have that energy. Here, Stoller and his editor Zene Baker have to cut much faster in order to keep up with that kind of pace, the result being a scene that feels rushed, ephemeral, like its not really a scene at all, just a series of jokes that actors say at, not to, each other.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising suffers from the same problems Neighbors had, the lack of craft the most obvious of them. But it’s really no worse than the original, and in fact it’s better due to its evolving politics. In its way, it is one the better, if not best, comedy sequels ever made. But that only means it has bettered the film that preceded it. Neighbors 2 is only great in relation to Neighbors. It makes for a good sequel, but only an okay film.