Movie Review - Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising
By Ben Gruchow
May 26, 2016

This looks like an image you'd see right before the serial killer strikes.

The ads for Neighbors 2 showcase a bikini strung over a fence, with the implication being that the second film in the unlikely franchise would largely be a continuation of the original's escalating series of pranks-verging-on-criminal-assault. No better argument can be made for the lapse in attendance for this film; the majority of comedy sequels contain more than their share of repetition, but they're not usually as up-front about promising exactly that repetition in their marketing materials.

It's simultaneously gratifying and irritating that the film itself contains little in the way of actual repetition: gratifying because the ongoing storyline and the clean cut of most of the jokes result in a rare sequel that often equals the pretty-good original and occasionally surpasses it (especially in its first half), irritating because that many fewer people will be there in the theater to see it happen, and because its quest to not re-hash the same storyline leaves the new one at a comparative disadvantage.

The movie takes place some unspecified length of time after Neighbors concluded, but it really could be within a day or two: Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) are about to have their second child, and decide it's time to move out of their starter home and into a bigger one. Their house is in a 30-day escrow with a buyer; they have a don't-screw-anything up period while inspections are performed, during which the buyers can pull out of the offer for any reason. This timing collides with three college students, led by Shelby (Chlöe Grace Moretz) and disillusioned with the rampant sexism and fraternity-favoring atmosphere on campus, to lease the house next door for their new sorority, Kappa Nu. Neighbors 2 also picks up the story and thematic threads belonging to the remaining Delta Psi Beta frat brothers - at least, the only two of them that really matter: Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco).

This is crucial to the overall effect of the film, and not necessarily in a good way. For all of the screen time devoted to the progression of these characters - and it is not insignificant - we are quite clearly meant to invest ourselves with Shelby and Co., as they inherit the old frat house and basically proceed to transgress the same social boundaries as Teddy and Co. The issue here is that neither Shelby nor her friends are terrifically interesting individuals. Shelby herself is actually pretty dull, which goes so far against Moretz's nature as a performer that it's almost profane; this is the individual that sometimes made parts of The 5th Wave almost worth watching, after all. Early on, Shelby is left disillusioned by the stodgy and overly subservient mannerisms of the big sorority on campus; in a scene with fellow potential pledges Beth and Nora, we get some vague sense that Shelby feels the gender-based injustice and double standard (“I'm sick of people telling us what to do!” she exclaims), but only really on the remote level of a privileged kid chafing at social expectations - and this was done better in the 2014 film.

It doesn't help matters that director Nicholas Stoller, returning from the first film, appears to more or less give up on the deeper explorations of the Kappa Nu sorority about halfway through, right around the time the escalation-game plot between them and Mac/Kelly begins. There's actually a moment where you can pinpoint this deflation of interest; I believe it's the scene with Shelby, Beth, and Nora talking to Mac and Kelly through one of the windows of their house. Then, a couple of scenes later, Mac walks out his front door to be confronted with the sight of several dozen Kappa Nu pledges, all scantily clad in loungers on his front lawn, and we realize that Stoller isn't really going to take Kappa Nu anywhere but the most necessary places in order to score a laugh, and we feel sort of let down.

Neighbors 2 is determinedly progressive and feminist in nature - particularly in the manner of its resolution - and it absolutely deserves some credit for being those things in such an outward way that there's no wiggle room to even debate about whether or not it's a plot driver. I wish that there was more there to discover, other than some exceedingly basic and superficial observations about sisterhood and unity.

Having more or less assessed the movie's main claim to novelty with a muted shrug, I might as well go ahead and observe that the parts of Neighbors 2 that aren't novel - the parts with Mac and Kelly and their ongoing relationship and problematic views of themselves as parents, the parts between Teddy and Pete, between Mac and Teddy, and basically everything inherited or continued from the first film - are markedly more successful. Especially Teddy, who becomes the movie's best investment with surprising alacrity. There weren't really any more layers that Efron could have added to Teddy without creating a new character entirely, but his main character conflict in this film - he's an academic failure who really wants, and then needs, to feel valued, while having aged out of virtually everything that would see him as an asset - is more complicated and observant than anything else in the feature.

The humor, ostensibly the reason we're here, is generally more confident and less hyperactive than in the first Neighbors, and the first act in particular has a smooth, consistent rhythm to its punchlines and story beats that the rest of the film can't hope to live up to. Mac and Kelly's realtor, played by Liz Cackowski, is one of the biggest contributors to this despite a relative lack of screen time: her initial rundown of the Radners' selling situation, after they receive an offer, nails the right comic timing and intonation so precisely that it throws into sharp relief any other performer or moment that falls even a little short (Lisa Kudrow is mostly wasted in a one-scene reappearance as a politically-charged dean, although the offhanded way she intercepts a bribe offer from Kelly is worth a decent laugh; Kelsey Grammer doesn't even have that to claim, in a cameo as Shelby's frustrated father that makes use of precisely none of the actor's estimable gift for conveying frustration in a comic way).

What Stoller has done here is crafted a sequel that aims higher in its observational prowess; there are enough sequels that don't even try for this, and enough sequels that try for it and fail entirely, that it's almost impossible to walk out of Neighbors 2 without some measure of kind and generous feeling toward it. It's not a bad film; there is storytelling fabric here that hangs together, and knowledge of the right comedic timing, and a willingness to explore the limited amount of character psychology in a way that makes sense on its own terms. There were the ingredients here, and the ambition, for a superior sequel, and it's a little disheartening to see those things ultimately end up fleeting and insubstantial.