Mark Reviews Movies

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Nicholas Stoller

Cast: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ike Barinholtz, Carla Gallo, Kiersey Clemons, Beanie Feldstein, Dave Franco, John Early, Jerrod Carmichael, Kelsey Grammer, Lisa Kudrow, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Hannibal Buress, Selena Gomez

MPAA Rating: R (for crude sexual content including brief graphic nudity, language throughout, drug use and teen partying)

Running Time: 1:32

Release Date: 5/20/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 19, 2016

It's not as if Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising needed to apologize for its predecessor. The first film may have indulged in some of the sexist attitudes that the sequel seeks to undermine. After all, a major part of its focus was on the parties of a fraternity. It didn't quite matter so much, though, because that film was more about a generational conflict, a fear of growing up that's shared between the generations, and the way such attitudes are just a means of covering up insecurities and apprehensions about oneself. It was more or less a character piece disguised as a raunchy comedy.

The times have changed in just the two years between the first film and its surprisingly superior sequel. The conversations about frats, college parties and culture, and what does and doesn't constitute sexism have evolved—oftentimes for the better and sometimes looking like hyper-sensitivity that misses the bigger picture for picking nits. That's the cultural landscape that the sequel exists within, explores, and dissects—even as it still provides a nonstop stream of gags that work far more often than they don't.

Even when those jokes stumble a bit, they still have something to say. Take a seemingly non sequitur montage in which two cops raid the homes of drug dealers. The sequence doesn't quite fit in with the narrative of the rest of the film, save for the fact that its rapid-fire pacing keeps the film moving. It is, though, perfectly in line with the film's willingness to tackle a topic as divisive and ripe for discussion as the interplay between police brutality and race.

It's as easy to be dumb as it is to pretend to be smart. The screenplay (by Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O'Brien, director Nicholas Stoller, star Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg) pulls off what might be the trickiest of comic approaches: It disguises how smart it actually is under a veil of playing dumb. The film is as convincing in its stupidity as it is in its intelligence. That's praise, by the way.

The film is also an example of how to mount a successful sequel—sticking to the notion of "theme and variation." It takes the fundamental elements of its predecessor, twisting them just enough to set itself apart and without resorting to the obvious recycling of material. It's fully aware of what worked in the first film—in this case, the main characters' anxieties about responsibilities for which they aren't certain if they're prepared. It continues and expands upon those ideas, keeping the characters the focus.

The most obvious variation should be apparent in the title. In the first film, Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) tried to get a fraternity that had moved in to the house next door to vacate the premises, so that they could have a little peace and quiet while trying to deal with becoming new parents. In this one, a sorority rents the former frat house, and now the couple is trying to sell their home. The sale is in escrow for 30 days so that the new buyers can back out of the sale if anything isn't to their liking.

Like the fraternity of old, the members of the sorority don't want to give up their "right to party," and another battle of pranks and sabotage commences. The wrench in the works is that, as opposed to the frat brothers of the first film, the sorority sisters have a good point.

The film first reintroduces us to the Radners, who are expecting another child. They now have some distance to evaluate their parenting skills. They have good reason to worry, since they can't quite stop their daughter's innocent adoration of mommy's vibrating toy (The parents try—and completely fail—to transform the item into a kid's toy). The screenplay also catches us up with Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), the former frat president who has jumped from one shared-living environment to another. He finds himself completely on his own for the first time in his life when his best friend/roommate Pete (Dave Franco) gets engaged to his boyfriend (John Early). There's something endearingly pathetic about the way Teddy latches on to and leeches off of the approval of others as a way of forming a sense of self-worth.

Then the film brings us to Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz), a college freshman looking to pledge at a campus-approved sorority. To her shock and horror, she (and everyone else in the room, thanks to their cellphones—devices that come into play later when a big speech is interrupted by a group texting session) learns that sororities are not allowed to hold parties.

The double standard, which seems to exist solely on account of the puritanical opinion that girls shouldn't be doing such things, leads Shelby to a trap of a frat party, where the guys charge 20 bucks for the "privilege" of letting women get drunk enough to go upstairs with them. Along with Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein), Shelby decides to found an independent sorority that won't have to follow the outdated rules of the system.

The established stakes for each of the three parties here are effective, and they generate a genuine sense of sympathetic tension behind the jokes. There's also a level of tension in the film's tightrope-walking sense of humor, which isn't afraid to openly discuss ideas about gender discrimination, cultural double standards (beyond the fraternity-sorority divide), and the actual definition of sexism vs. the practical one (Lisa Kudrow appears as the college dean who's afraid of being labeled as prejudiced, while also dismantling the absurdity of the concept of "reverse sexism").

The film doesn't preach. Its main objective remains to elicit laughs, and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising does so with a delirious sense of momentum and an admirable variety of humor—from awkward conversations and poor word choices to broad pratfalls and gross-out sight gags. Even then, the film stops to question why a prank centered on female biology is considered "gross" when compared to a similar, hypothetical one that would involve male anatomy. The film is high-brow enough to ask the question and low-brow enough to allow us to laugh at the gag that inspired the query.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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