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