Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising improves upon the original 2014 comedy, and not just because it includes multiple “toddler with a dildo” jokes. Director Nicolas Stoller and team of five screenwriters, including star Seth Rogen, have made a sequel with more than comedy on its mind. Palpable anxiety informs the decisions of all the important characters, so there is an emotional component as said anxiety escalates within them. And while the original film played it safe with frat bros as the enemy, the sorority of Neighbors 2 are more than mere girls gone wild. Their cause is an important one, so the escalating prank war arrives with a streak of righteous feminism.
Mac (Rogen) and his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne) still live next to the house where the frat moved in, but that’s about to change. Now that they’re expecting another kid, they’re about to close on a bigger place in the suburbs. The only hurdle is their current home is in escrow – the buyer has thirty days to renege the deal – and all is going according to plan, at least until Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) decides to start a sorority there. Shelby is more of a revolutionary than a sorority sister: partying is her right as a college student, and since frats have an ugly date rape vibe, she and her new friends (Kiersey Clemons and Beanie Feldstein) create a space for themselves. In a naked attempt to preserve his youth, Teddy (Zac Efron) the former frat bro offers Shelby his assistance, so Mac and Kelly must once again find a way to undermine youthful decadence before it’s too late.
The jokes come from the clash between inner youth and outer expectations. Mac and Kelly must be good parents, yet they still feel imposters who would rather rip a bong. Shelby wants to reinvent herself for college, yet worries she’ll regress to her friendless high school self. The biggest clash, of course, comes from Teddy. Absent any future or prospects, he jumps back into the simplicity of his college days, except he cannot shake the wisdom eking through his desire to get boldly trashed.
Like the original Neighbors, Stoller relies on the natural charisma and timing of his cast. Rogen and Byrne have easy chemistry – it’s now even more plausible that she’d end up with a schlub like him – while Teddy flexes him improbable abs and speaks with the zeal of a true believer*. The irony is that Teddy feels he cannot fit in anymore; there is a funny scene where the sorority wordlessly kicks him out, but Efron correctly does not play the betrayal for laughs. Meanwhile the strongest newcomer is Feldstein, who matches Teddy in her fervent devotion to Greek Life, and steals every scene she’s in with exaggerated physical comedy. While the tight script and secondary characters are always funny, the broader physical gags are where Neighbors 2 outdoes itself. Characters fly in all directions – literally – and the gross-out jokes achieve a bizarre form of greatness.
Still, the most refreshing thing about Neighbors 2 is its sense of inclusion. All the characters grapple with their identity, and none of them are shamed for it. There is a hilarious scene moment where former frat bros discuss gay marriage, and there is no underlying homophobia. There are throwaway gags about police brutality and sexism. The script is so shrewd and confident that it might even introduce new slang: when one character uses “Cosby” as a verb, the sense is that the new definition will stick. The only nasty characters are the college-age frat bros who think their parties mean they’re entitled to a consequence-free environment.
Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg began their writing careers with Superbad, a film where high school nerds think that sex is all that matters. The characters here are beyond that: what matters to them is not sex, but a sense of belonging, whether it’s through friendship, family, or a sense of sisterhood. This is a mature film, in its own way, and proof that maturity is not synonymous with taking yourself seriously.
* Zac Efron brings an intensity to his work that is kind of admirable. In a few years, he could possibly win awards for darker, character-driven roles.