Neighbors was a rare comedy, at once eliciting uproarious belly laughs with slapstick and farce, while also making an unexpectedly nuanced and mature statement about the male ego and insecurities about aging.
Of course, where studio heads are concerned, the most important thing is that it was profitable, meaning a sequel was immediately greenlit. Moreover, laughs are easier to elicit than insight is to encourage, so the odds were good that the second Neighbors would spend all its energy repeating a bunch of the same jokes while not bothering with the intelligence that helped the original be more than just funny.
In fairness to Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, it actually does have something to say, just like the original, and this time it even-handedly turns the focus around to look at the female ego and societal double-standards. In fairness against it, though, it relies way too much on trying to repeat every superficially successful thing about Neighbors.
When college freshman Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) discovers that sororities aren’t allowed to throw parties — even though fraternities are — she decides to strike out on her own and start an independent sorority, along with friends Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein).
Married parents Mac and Kelly Radnor (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) survived the Neighbors war with the fraternity led by playboy Teddy (Zac Efron) and are ready to move to a new place. During their one-month period of escrow when their buyers could still back out, the now-vacant house next door gets rented out by Shelby, Beth, and Nora for their new party-friendly sorority, Kappa Nu. Thus begins a new war between the Radners and college students next door.
Because this is a studio-mandated sequel, everyone who made an appearance in the first movie is back in some capacity, from Ike Barinholtz, Harrison Buress, and Lisa Kudrow to Dave Franco, Jerrod Carmichael, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. (That still leaves plenty of space for new additions like Selena Gomez, Billy Eichner, and Kelsey Grammar.) Nicely, the movie doesn’t feel crowded because director Nicholas Stoller knows how to treat his cast as a cohesive ensemble.
Having cut his teeth with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, and The Five-Year Engagement, Stoller (who already directed Neighbors) has become one of the most reliable directors in modern comedy. He has access to all of Judd Apatow’s cadre and, more importantly, shares Apatow’s belief that the strongest comedies take time for moments of personal drama.
While the first movie supplied a lot of that in the growing rift between the meat-headed Teddy and his secretly smart bro-for-life Pete (Franco), Teddy bears the full brunt of it here. If the first movie was partially about Teddy discovering the best years of his life were already behind him, Neighbors 2 tackles the disillusionment that comes from living an adulthood devoid of respect or maturity. It’s a brave direction to take the character in, and Efron brings the same impressive depth and pain to the role he did in the original.
Rogen is as funny as usual. While he’s a gifted enough comedian to support himself when the material can’t, he’s even better with a strong script to work with (particularly when working with talented co-stars). The same goes for Byrne, currently one of the most underrated actors in comedy.
Byrne and Rogen are the perfect team, working so smoothly together that if they weren’t the stars already, they’d surely have gotten their own This is 40-style spinoff by now. So much of why we sympathize with the characters comes from their cute banter, similar ignorances, and ability to function as a true team. If there’s a cinematic equivalent to Marshall and Lily from How I Met Your Mother, it’s Mac and Kelly.
The girls of Kappa Nu are an excellent fit to the series. Moretz is more likeable here than she’s been in her last few projects, taking a character than could have just been an unsympathetic brat and creating a complex person who becomes hard to root against, much as Efron did with Teddy in the first Neighbors. Clemons and Feldstein are also great; with Moretz, the three make as strong a team as the frat leaders did the first time around.
While much of the plot covers similar ground to the original — thankfully, there are not as many resurrection of the worn-out airbag gag as Neighbors 2’s trailer advertises — the movie approaches the recycled bits freshly. The call-backs are less repetitions than reinterpretations.
Still, by the climactic showdown, even the most refurbished script elements start to feel just a little too familiar. The one-upmanship remains incredibly funny — thanks in no small part to how hard every supporting actor here swings for the fences — but things doesn’t have the natural momentum the second time around.
The statements Sorority Rising makes, as well, just aren’t as unexpected or original as in the first movie. It wants to make important points about gender equality and hypocrisy, and does, but can’t find the subtle way to go about it that gave the first movie its light touch. Some watched Neighbors and didn’t even notice the subtext; a ten-year-old will pick up on the lessons of Neighbors 2.
Compared to the first movie, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising isn’t as fresh about what it does or as smart about what it says. Compared to other recent lukewarm sequels like Hot Tub Time Machine 2, Pitch Perfect 2, Ted 2, Ride Along 2, and Zoolander 2, though, it’s still better than you probably expect.