The premise of “Neighbors,” a comedy about a couple with a baby getting into a prank war with a bunch of fraternity guys, seems unlikely to yield one good film, let alone two. Well, although “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” is made mostly of recycled materials, it’s shockingly one of the better comedy sequels in recent memory, and by default that makes it one of the best comedy sequels.
The first sign that “Neighbors 2” is not strictly a Hollywood cash grab is the return of the original director and writers. The script was a five-way collaboration between “Neighbors” writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and producer/director Nicholas Stoller. They obviously all had a sequel idea they really liked, or they wouldn’t have written it, produced it and directed it themselves.
Despite appearances, “Neighbors 2” does more than swap the bros for “hos.” Rather than replace the stereotypical frat boys of the last film (played by Dave Franco and Zac Efron, who return to this one) with hot sorority girls, the story focuses on a group of misfit girls led by Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), who don’t buy into the sorority system and want to create their own house with their own rules where they can party the way they want.
Of course they get their bright idea when the Radners (Rogen and Rose Byrne) go into escrow on their house, and any funny business in the next 30 days could see the buyers walk, leaving the Radners with two mortgages. When the girls don’t play nice, it’s game on, again.
For a film created by five dudes, the story has a surprisingly strong feminist angle, addressing double standards and poking fun at the idea of reverse sexism. Not where you were expecting this review to go? Me neither. Comedies written by and for women aren’t even this good at breaking down female stereotypes and addressing the mistreatment of women (see 2008’s “The House Bunny”), let alone turning them into comedic fodder.
As a man I can obviously only say so much on the subject, but “Neighbors 2” comes across as progressive and socially intelligent for all its immature humor. Movies with sorority sister characters typically portray them as hollow objectified shells with attractive body parts. These girls are only objectified in a couple scenes and it’s to make a point about exploitation.
If anything, the movie gives us the opposite of male gaze. The camera often ogles Zac Efron, whose character, Teddy, has lost his way and finds renewed purpose in intervening in the sorority v. “old people” wars. The script offers some spot-on commentary about the ways women objectify men, something it can really only pull off because it has Efron, one of the most actually ogled real-life male actors working today.
The witty social issue undertones aside, “Neighbors 2” scores a fair amount of laughs, even though it cycles through scenarios from the last movie. As with the original, the divide between college Millennials and Generation X young adults plays a big factor in the jokes that work as do the inappropriate parent behavior jokes. Some of the gross-out gags, physical slapstick and drug humor, on the other hand, fall more flat.
Through it all, somehow “Neighbors 2” touches on real themes in honest ways, whether it’s sisterhood between the women, growing up and maintaining friendships for Efron and Franco’s characters or embracing the role of parent. The depth is shocking for a movie requiring Efron to remove every shirt in his costume wardrobe.
Dial it all back to the fundamentals and incredible kudos belong to these five guys for crafting a sequel that checks off all the boxes: It builds on the comedic conceit of the original, has a logical storyline, progresses the journey of its main characters and justifies its existence with something valuable to say. Argue all you want about whether it’s funny or not, comedy sequels are often terrible and “Neighbors 2” actually works.
Directed by Nicholas Stoller
Written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Chloe Grace Moretz, Zac Efron