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Monday, September 26, 2016

Review: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016)

* * *

Director: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Seth Rogan, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Chloe Grace Moretz

God bless Rose Byrne, comedy ninja. Bless everyone involved in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, really. While Neighbors absolutely did not require a sequel, telling as it did a complete story that ended in a way that seemed to genuinely close the book rather than open out into a new chapter, there was virtually no chance that a movie that cost $18 million to make and then raked in $150 million at the domestic box office alone was not going to get a follow up cash in. The timing of that cash in sucked, coming as it did during the summer of 2016, also known as the summer when every sequel that didn't feature Dory or several of the Avengers either failed to live up to expectations or flat out bombed, but as it turns out this is actually a pretty good movie. More importantly, it's a movie that actually wants to be about something and mostly succeeds, managing to do so while being fairly hilarious at that.

The first Neighbors was about the inter-generational conflict between a young married couple and the frat house that has moved in next door. The sequel is about recognizing the effect of frat culture on women, and though I'm not quite prepared to label as feminist a movie that features a scene where a horde of bikini clad young women get sprayed with a house while splaying themselves across a car, it comes pretty damn close despite that scene. The catalyst of the story is the discovery by a trio of college freshmen - Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), Beth (Kiersey Clemons), and Nora (Beanie Feldstein) - that sororities aren't allowed to throw parties themselves, but can only attend frat parties, and that frat parties are a gauntlet of objectification where the possibility of being raped is around every corner (and openly advertised with a "No Means Yes" banner in the living room). Their dorms offer no respite as they find themselves under the thumb of an overzealous RA, so they decide to pool their funds, rent a house, and start their own sorority where they'll be able to party on their own terms, in a way that allows them to feel safe and not like they've been reduced to being a form of entertainment and sport for a bunch of drunk men.

This is all well and good for them, but it's disaster for Mac (Seth Rogan) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), the young marrieds from the first film who are now expecting their second child and whose house has just entered into escrow as the sorority opens its doors. At first they try to reason with the girls, telling them that if they can just behave themselves for the 30 days it will take escrow to complete then they can go crazy ever afterwards, but their words fall on deaf ears. The whole reason that the girls rented the house in the first place was because they didn't want to be told what to do or how to do it. So the only thing left is war, as Mac and Kelly try to shut the sorority down so that their sale can complete, and the sorority hits back with a series of escalating pranks, making it necessary for Mac and Kelly to form an alliance with their one-time enemy Teddy (Zac Efron), the former frat leader who now finds himself at loose ends as all of his friends grow up and settle down.

With a screenplay by Andrew Jay Cohen, Brendan O'Brien (the two writers of the first film), Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogan, and director Nicholas Stoller, Neighbors 2 is a film that is surprisingly tuned in to the female point of view. What was celebrated in the first film is now turned on its head, viewed from a different angle where the aggressive hyper sexuality of the frat atmosphere is seen less a something that bonds young men together and more as something that makes young women feel unsafe and feeds into a culture of violence against women. That said, while the film has the female perspective on its mind, I don't think that it actually views things from a female perspective. It's more about the men in the film coming to terms with how they're seen from the other side, from Teddy recognizing that what he saw as fun might be seen as threatening to a woman, to Mac being befuddled about how men are even allowed to talk about women anymore and how he's supposed to handle being the father to two daughters and confronting the difference between how he would raise and relate to a son as opposed to his daughters.

Neighbors 2 isn't at all subtle in the way that it addresses these issues, but when a film is as funny as this one is, it can safely waive subtlety away without losing much. Now working on the same side, Mac and Teddy develop new facets to their relationship and Rogan and Efron play as nicely off of each other as allies as they did as enemies, and Byrne is great once again as the tightly wound Kelly. It should be noted that, aside from Shelby, the women of the sorority are about as thinly drawn as possible and none emerges as distinct or even particularly memorable, which is perhaps why the film feels the need to call back to the frat brothers from the original, including Dave Franco's Pete, whose engagement to a man is a source of conflict for Teddy, not because Pete is gay, but simply because Pete is moving on without him. Of course, without that subplot giving further context to Teddy, Efron might not have been able to deliver the vulnerable and perhaps even nuanced performance that ends up on screen, and at the end of the day it's all about Teddy, Mac, and Kelly anyway. Hollywood may love nothing more than to run a decent premise into the ground, but Neighbors 2 is one of the rare sequels that is equal to the original.

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