Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising has no business being this good

The comedy sequel is one of the worst things mankind’s twisted capitalist machinations has designed. Comedy tends to be all about time and place, so it only follows that allowing the cruel forward march of time to take us away from the original place often diminishes comedic power, usually leading to a soulless copy of the original success.

That’s why it’s so rare to find a comedy sequel that’s actually worth a damn, and why we should give three cheers to a comedy sequel that actually finds a way to both escalate and improve upon the original film it’s sequeling.  So that’s why I demand that we give a rowdy huzzah to director Nicholas Stoller’s Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising for joining the illustrious ranks of 22 Jump Street and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and…uhhh.

Anyway, Neighbors 2 is a film that manages to build on a comedy (Neighbors) everyone was surprised to like and make a film that’s thoughtful and warm-hearted in addition to being some good filthy laughs.

The film picks up a few years after the original as married-with-kids pair Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) are preparing to move out of their old home and into a new one when they hit a snag. Due to not understanding exactly what escrow is, they’ve got 30 days until their home can be officially sold and for the time being, they’ve got two homes. But as long as nothing goes wrong, they’ll be able to sell the old home.

There wouldn’t be a movie if something didn’t go wrong wrong.

That something is a sorority moving in next door, Kappa Nu, led by the Radners’ brand new college-aged rival Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz). The sorority seeks to reject the no-partying rules for American sororities (that are an actual thing) and throw parties that are on their own terms, as raucous and loud as they want without having to pander to the Frat crowd. And helping Kappa Nu out is Teddy (Zac Efron), the Radner’s nemesis from the first film who’s seeking out validation as the rest of his friends move through the milestones of the 20s.

Neighbors 2 is being billed as a raunchy bro-comedy, and that’s not absolutely wrong. There’s plenty of masculine friendship and gross-out gags to suit that label, including one of the more grody visuals involving a breech birth I’ve ever seen committed to film. But if Neighbors 2 was just another bro comedy, we’d be right to not give a shit about it.

Instead, the film does something quietly radical, simply by acknowledging the limits and the changing nature of the bro world. The fact that college culture can be toxic for a large swath of people and anathema to a number of the women who exist within it is often lost on films like this, so it’s wonderful to see a film simply willing to acknowledge and play from the idea of women enjoying and having fun in a partying atmosphere divorced from male perspectives.

There’s an early scene taking place at Shelby’s first frat party, where she meets the friends that will later help her form Kappa Nu. Stoller plays it like the party from hell, bathed in dingy blacklight and presenting women’s bodies as props and prizes. A little on the nose, sure, but a strong statement to make for a genre that has quick appeal to the very crowd Neighbors 2 is mocking.

This is a film about women testing their limits and discovering how to push against the boundaries the world around them provides. And if you’re on that wavelength, there’s something really wonderful about a raunchy comedy that realizes sexism isn’t a punchline, and that there’s a world of comedy that can exist away from it.

Men’s Rights!”  

“No, fuck you.”

– Mac Radner (Seth Rogen) responding to Jimmy Blevins (Ike Barinholtz)

A large part of that perspective is thanks to the three girls that head up Kappa Nu. I’ve already mentioned Chloe Grace-Moretz’s Shelby, and I want to sing her praises just a little more. I always loved her on 30 Rock as Jack Donaghy’s nemesis beyond her years, and I always wanted her to bring that same seemingly naturalistic use of her theater-kid showiness to her often more affected film roles, or at least to move past it. Well, she finally does, and this is without a doubt one of her better performances, feeling like she’s actually inhabiting a character, rather than just playing them.

However, it’s not just Grace-Moretz. The central friendship is a trio, and Grace-Moretz has two fantastic young actresses to play off in Kiersey Clemons and Beanie Fieldstein. The three feel incredibly natural as friends, and the arc they have (while trodding pretty standard comedy ground) is incredibly sweet because of that chemistry and has you rooting for them even as they seek to tear apart the lives of those around them.

Speaking to the good-naturedness of this film, it actually would have been really easy to flip it and turn the Radners into the bad guy of this one. But Neighbors 2 absolutely wants every one of its characters to be at most misguided, but never wrong. The Radners are simply trying to find themselves in an increasingly settled-down existence that asks for change, and to do right by their child. They’re pushing against the sorority just enough to get what they need and are willing to pull back their war because they understand where those girls are right now.

Neighbors 2 loves its characters, even with the shit it puts them through for comedy, and it just wants what’s best, to borrow a parenting phrase. In a way, this love for the characters is a lot like last year’s Magic Mike XXL.

In fact, there’s a shocking amount of similarity between this and Magic Mike XXL. Both are sequels that had no right to be any good and found a way to pivot off the original film with a narrative looseness and by a warm-hearted outlook. I really kind of want to live in the worlds these films create. Both are surprisingly centered around a female perspective, even with an ostensibly male genre design. And both know that if the film loves its characters, it goes a long way towards conveying that love to the audience.

I don’t think that philosophy is shown anywhere more than in the return of Zac Efron. The movie is on a high-wire justifying Teddy Sanders’ return from Neighbors, but it ends up pulling it off largely thanks to Efron’s performance. He can be iffy as an actor, but he’s been committed nowhere more than in these films. In return, Neighbors knows how to use his sort of empty-headed good looks better than any other comedy or drama that Efron keeps getting inexplicably cast in. Neighbors knows how to get Efron to make you want to like this big, dumb, sad teddy bear of a frat boy who just needs to find his way in the world.

The clever bit, though, is that his character’s presence is also justified thematically. See, Efron’s adrift because the world is changing around him due to nothing more than the aging process. Just like the Radners needing to move out to the suburbs and just like the sorority girls needing to find their own space away from the traditionalist college atmosphere.

Neighbors 2’s secret brilliance is that it has one of the strongest dramatic backbones in a comedy in years, and it explicitly metatextually ties in with the idea that this is a comedy sequel.

The film at its emotional core is all about moving forward, every character is trying to advance while figuring out what’s holding them back. Not just content to be eminently relatable, it’s also a comedy sequel about the pressures that come with being a comedy sequel, and in that way, it removes itself from the space that first sequel occupies while retaining what we loved. It’s a comedy sequel that lets us relate to our own struggle, and relate to the struggle the film itself is having.

Yeah, that’s all fine and good if you’re as deeply up your own colon as I am, but what if you just want to laugh? Well, Neighbors 2 has you taken care of there. It’s a riotously funny film, with Rogen and Byrne and Efron and our lead girls, along with comedy secret weapon Ike Barinholtz and comedy obvious weapon Hannibal Burress, are all incredibly game for one of the best studio comedies I’ve seen in a couple years. Plenty of great improv lines and little physical gags keep the audience going throughout the film so that Stoller can indulge in a single massive chase sequence/comedy set-piece scored with a marching band version of Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” and the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.”

Stoller and his team of writers have checked every necessary box to make this comedy sequel work. It’s grounded in the characters and not simply the scenario, and it actually is actively thinking about the process that takes it from film 1 to film 2. It’s breaking away from the original trappings and finding a new world. It’s not just a bro-comedy, it’s a comedy about the space that bro comedies have created, and how to move past those in general. And it’s fucking hilarious.

Neighbors 2 has no business being this good, so thank the maker that Stoller and his cast rose to the challenge of making a film that not only is a damn fine raunchy bro comedy, but challenges every other raunchy bro comedy out there to do better.

Grade: A


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