Like so many comedy sequels, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is little more than a belabored reason to repeat the first movie’s basic structure and gags, with a lower joke success rate and a sparser humor density. At least in this case the “little more” is interesting. So it’s not nothing, but still quite a bit less enjoyable than the broad, bawdy, and surprisingly thoughtful sight-gag heavy original. It found a frat house (led by Zac Efron) moving in next door to a married couple (Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen) and their baby. This was, of course, an acrimonious situation, generational discomfort agitated into a prank war as the parents sad to see their youth slipping away desperately attempted to get the frat bros evicted. By the end they’d reach some understanding, the bros and the adults going to their separate ways supposedly wiser for the experience. Not so, it turns out, as a sorority moves into the now-empty frat and the cycle starts all over again.
Getting a sorority involved is the movie’s cleverest idea. It allows for an exploration of gendered double standards, explicitly asking if the wild behavior and mean-spirited pranks the girls get up to over the course of the story would be considered quite so extreme if it were done by guys. It’s also a sharp elbow in the side of campus culture, bringing up the totally true rule that sororities aren’t allowed to throw parties. This is why a group of misfit freshmen girls (Chloë Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons, and Beanie Feldstein, funny, if somehow underused in their own movie) decide to start up their own off-campus sorority, throwing a bunch of parties with cover charges to pay for rent. It’s empowering after a fashion, a sloppy animal house for the young ladies. Girls can have a dumb raunchy college comedy, too, you know. But, alas, that’s where the movie’s inspiration ends.
That freshness is tied to a retread of its returning characters’ emotional arcs. Why not find something new for Rogen and Byrne to do instead of simply worry about the effect of the out-of-control college kids next door again? Wouldn’t it be funny if they tried a different approach? The stakes are ratcheted up from the last time. Now they’ve bought a new house, are close to closing a deal selling their current one, and are afraid the girls will sink the escrow, leaving them with no choice but to go bankrupt. That’s ominous. But their response is to engage in the exact sort of behavior that got them in over their heads last time. Once more they’re torn about their out-of-touch status and fretting about being good parents while roping in old friends (like Ike Barinholtz) to terrorize the sorority and kicking off another prank war. You’d think they’d know better by now. The new idea they try is a contortion to get Efron back in the mix, this time working with them to help combat the youngsters. This is also the point where you realize age is coming for us all, and recent teen star Efron is closer in age to Rogen than to Moretz. Time marches on and whatnot.
The screenplay cobbled together by director Nicholas Stoller, Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg, with co-writers Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien takes narrative shortcuts to get to jokes and setpieces. Then, once there, it’s not really worth the time. There’s a lengthy sequence set at a tailgate that’s just misjudged and tedious. The parties aren’t as fun or chaotic as the first film’s; nor are the relationships between the sorority sisters sketched out as clearly as the frat bros’. That’s not to say there aren’t funny developments – a handful of Minions-inspired cutaway jokes are almost reason enough to have made the movie – but the lengths to which it goes to generate less of an effect than before is a little dispiriting. So much falls flat and so little seems to be telling a focused story or expressing coherent behavior that it’s just sitting there on screen.
Yet as far as disappointing and unnecessary sequels go, this one’s not actively harmful, just a bit of a drag. The performers have a lot of energy – more than the plot, jokes, and filmmaking know what to do with – and the whole thing has a nice low-key progressive bent. It’s not straining to be open-minded. It just is. There’s a sharp, if occasionally muddled, understanding of what it means to be a woman on a college campus and the sexist lenses with which society at large views them. (Blame the few cheaper moments – like weeping en masse to a sad movie – on the total lack of women in the writer’s room, I suppose.) And there’s something to its casual, natural acceptance. An early scene finds a gay couple’s engagement joyously celebrated by their former frat bros who jump up and down chanting “U.S.A.” That’s a patriotic image in my book. Would that all these good intentions turn the lackluster film around them into something worth the watch.