by Philip Price
Two summers ago we were introduced to Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) Miller, a couple who'd just welcomed their first child into the world and purchased their first home in what were natural steps toward adulthood. That seemingly smooth transition was abruptly interrupted when they learned they were actually living next door to a fraternity. Led by incorrigible party guy Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) the two households went head-to-head with one another in a war of wits and schemes that once again conveyed the age old lesson of Seth Rogen comedies in that there comes a time in every young man's life when it's time to become a confused man-child. While this interesting, albeit somewhat contrived premise worked wonders the first time proving fertile ground for consistent and interesting comedy, it was such a singular type of event that to make a sequel would seem to automatically cheapen the effect of the first film. Lucky for us, director Nicolas Stoller along with Rogen and longtime writing partner Evan Goldberg as well as Brendan O'Brien and Andrew Jay Cohen have crafted a screenplay that not only allows for this same premise to work again, but also uses this set-up to make legitimate social commentary. Executing comedy successfully is difficult enough, but to on top of that endeavor to actually say something substantial in between your weed and dildo jokes is admirable, at the very least. What this comes down to is placing a fledgling sorority (led by the likes of Chloë Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons and Beanie Feldstein) in the house where Teddy's Delta Psi once resided. In doing this, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” is able to transform itself from simply giving the Millers another challenge in sleep deprivation to a film that analyzes the inherent double standards of society by exposing how our system has more or less been cultivated to give males the advantage in the majority of circumstances. The issue of being able to party may be a trivial one, but this is obviously an in to a bigger means and that ‘Neighbors 2’ makes you contemplate anything at all is rather impressive.
Picking up in real time, two years after the events of the first film, we find Mac and Kelly in the process of selling their house as they are expecting their second child. While Delta Psi has long since abandoned the house next door the couple is still nervous about the buyers backing out due to the fact they are in a 30-day escrow waiting period. It is within this short window that three freshman females decide to rush before discovering that sororities can't throw their own parties in their own houses, but instead have to go to fraternity parties if they want to drink, smoke or hook up with anyone. In attending their first frat party it becomes apparent quite quickly how heavily rape culture seems to influence these gatherings and so Shelby (Moretz), Beth (Clemons) and Nora (Feldstein) decide to begin their own sorority off campus so that they might throw the type of parties they imagined college would hold. Naturally, these three end up back at the abandoned Delta Psi house where they discover a now world-weary Teddy. When we last left Teddy he was one of those Abercrombie & Fitch models that stood outside the store with his shirt off. Since then, A & F has done away with their shirtless models relegating Teddy to the back of the store where he is under the supervision of a manager who's barely legal and where he couldn't feel less valued. To make matters worse, his best friend and current roommate Pete (Dave Franco) has come out of the closet since graduating college and is now engaged leaving Teddy with nowhere to go. While Teddy is happy that his former frat brother has found happiness and that his other former brothers including Garf (Jerrod Carmichael) and Scoonie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) have gone on to successful careers in developing apps and an officer of the law (partnered with Hannibal Buress from the first film no less) he can't help but to feel left behind. This leads him to re-trace his past leading him back to the Delta Psi house that is about to become the Kappa Nu house. Teddy pledges to help these three inexperienced, but determined young ladies start-up and manage their sorority to which they happily accept inevitably leading to squabble's with the next door neighbors who are trying to sell their house.
What is truly fantastic about ‘Neighbors 2’ is that it is able to retain many of the charms that made the original so appealing without feeling like it is blatantly ripping itself off. To the films credit it still gives main characters Mac and Kelly the most to do while playing off of one another to great results as Rogen and Byrne truly have tremendous chemistry as a comedy couple. Much of this comes from the script not forcing Byrne's Kelly into the standard archetype of nagging wife, but rather Kelly is just as flawed and potentially as bad a parent as her immature, but admirable husband. To be fair, they aren't really great parents to the now three year-old Stella (still being played by twins Elise and Zoey Vargas) as they cuss incessantly in front of her and have resorted to dressing up Kelly's dildos in princess garb as Stella can't help but to keep finding them. Still, Byrne is at the top of her game as she serves up as many instantly classic moments and one-liners as her counterpart. In fact, I can already better recall more of Byrne's moments than Rogen's. Still, it is in this realm that I also found the film to be irritating. There are multiple times where ‘Neighbors 2’ either doesn't explain where or with who Mac and Kelly have left Stella or during montages where we are privy to the extent of Kappa Nu's parties does it ever show how much it is disrupting the sleep schedule of Stella or how this is affecting the stress levels of Kelly who is still pregnant throughout this whole ordeal. I'm not even complaining about these aspects from a prudish perspective, but more in the way that they could have mined these issues for more comedy. As a parent one tends to think of these things and if a hard-partying group of girls fresh out of their parents’ houses moved in next door to where my daughter was on a solid sleep schedule I'd be furious. Speaking of the fresh out of high school freshmen the other big downfall of this otherwise superior sequel is that it doesn't tend to develop the three lead females of Kappa Nu as well as it did in the original with Efron and Franco despite the main theme of the film being centered around these girls and their individuality being valued for what it is instead of what they're expected to be. Whereas Teddy is able to be a critical character with a genuine arc in this sequel I don't know that the same could be done with Shelby in “Neighbors 3: The Omega.”
Despite a few shortcomings I would tend to lean toward ‘Sorority Rising’ being the superior film when stacked against its predecessor. Whereas that first film felt more like an extended investigation into a fun premise rather than a full-fledged story this sequel has real weight while maintaining the level of antics if not upping the quantity and quality of purely ridiculous moments. If one was to doubt such possibilities know that somehow Mac and Kelly along with friends Jimmy (scene-stealer Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (Carla Gallo) end up in a drug war with teenagers and with no furniture in their house at one point. At a tight 90 minutes the film is almost too short for all it has going on. The good news is the film is infinitely re-watchable with Stoller integrating some outlandish visual techniques to add to the absurd nature of the situation. Using fast zoom-ins, embracing random visual cues, and armed with an arsenal of well-placed songs Stoller amplifies the sillier and more ludicrous elements of his movie to the greatest effect possible. Combined with the scripts ability to touch on ideas of bucking a system that is more or less designed to force a fair amount of women to become what they despise in order to prosper and subsequently force a sisterhood apart because of the inherent competition such expectations present the movie not only addresses valid concerns, but offers a resolution in the form of our main characters who are raising a daughter of their own. Mac and Kelly may admittedly not be the best parents, but they know the world they don't want their daughter growing up in and that's not one where ho is as endearing a term as bro. This all culminates in a pretty terrific scene between Mac, Kelly, and Stella in the final moments of the film that not only seems to put a kibosh on the transition of Rogen from man-child to full-fledged man, but adds a sense of perspective and most importantly, value, to what means the most in our small, sometimes irrelevant lives. ‘Neighbors 2’ is the rare oddity of a comedy sequel that is able to match the surprise and fun of the original despite being a similar film. With a kind of perverted grace and a Zac Efron that is being utilized to the best of his abilities this is a film that's not only happy to revel in re-visiting fun characters, but uses such an opportunity to once again discuss transition as well as self-respect and defiance in the face of those asking for such things to be sacrificed.