Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising believes at least one truth to be self-evident: that all dirtbags are created equal.
This sentiment is part of what made 2014’s surprise hit Neighbors so much fun, as Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen‘s flustered new parents tried to take down Delta Psi, the disruptive frat next door, and its leader, Teddy (Zac Efron). And this sequel — also directed by Nicholas Stoller — doesn’t mess too much with that formula.
The minute Kelly and Mac (Byrne and Rogen) decide to sell their house and escape with their toddler to the deeper suburbs, they find a new nemesis in Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), a new college freshman who decides to rebel against the sexist Greek system by starting her own “no rules allowed” sorority in Delta Psi’s old house. (As you might recall, the frat went out in a blaze of glory when Kelly and Mac got the cops to crash its biggest party.)
Even worse, Teddy steps in to mentor her in the art of throwing dank parties, having nothing better to do now that he’s aging out of his job as a shirtless model at Abercrombie & Fitch. And so Kelly and Mac finds themselves right back where they started, having traded a war with a nightmare fraternity for one with a budding nightmare sorority.
This premise is as close to that of the original film as Neighbors 2 can get. But the sequel is so much smarter and more creative than its basic logline implies — and it far surpasses its predecessor.
So without further ado, here are three reasons I went into Neighbors 2 tentatively excited, and came out grinning my face off.
1) The Efron/Rogen/Byrne trio is even better than when we left it, because the characters keep trying to evolve
Neighbors was very funny, but what immediately set it apart from its R-rated, raunchy dude comedy brethren was its cast. Rogen, Byrne, and Efron were excellent, and supporting players like Dave Franco, Jerrod Carmichael, and Lisa Kudrow made the most out of every line they got. That pattern continues in Neighbors 2, especially with new sorority additions like Kiersey Clemons‘s optimistic Beth and the hilariously blunt Beanie Feldstein as Nora, not to mention plenty of sneak cameos I wouldn’t dare ruin.
But the headlining trio is still the main draw, especially since they’re even more comfortable in their roles, making their banter both looser and sharper than ever. I liked them a whole lot in Neighbors; after Neighbors 2, I’d follow them to hell and back (so through three more sequels, probably).
Rogen’s been a bro comedy staple since 2005’s 40 Year-Old Virgin, but the smartest thing about his part in the Neighbors franchise is that it feels like a natural progression of the characters he’s long been known for playing. Mac is basically just a grown-up version of Rogen’s 20-something burnouts. He’s still spilling bong water all over the place, but his number one priority now is keeping his family’s shit together.
Meanwhile, Kelly is refreshing as a character, if only because her defiant partying is a direct rejection of the nagging wife stereotype we’ve seen a thousand times before. That Byrne’s portrayal of her is always teetering on the edge of a bender — even while pregnant, as Kelly is in Neighbors 2 — is just a bonus. I could watch Byrne deliver laser-focused punchlines — as she also did in the first Neighbors, Spy, and Get Him to the Greek — on a loop from now until I die, and I’d die happy.
But where the first movie was more about Kelly and Mac figuring out their version of maturity, the second puts that responsibility squarely on Teddy.
In the first Neighbors, Efron’s Teddy was a lightning bolt of smarm with a killer smile and a rock-hard set of abs. The same holds true in Neighbors 2. But Efron’s commitment to the role makes what could have been a pretty basic Peter Pan character far more vulnerable and determined than you might expect from a movie that features him distracting coeds with his junk.
Efron’s Teddy plays on preconceived perceptions, both of how two-dimensional aggressive frat guys usually are in movies and of Efron’s own teen dream idol status. As Fran Hoepfner wrote at the A.V. Club, Efron is “a character actor with a leading-man’s face,” and he plays Teddy as more of a bizarro version of Efron himself by “leaning so far into his own persona that the result is nightmarishly effective.”
And so Efron almost runs away with Neighbors 2. Teddy has Efron’s steely good looks and mind-boggling physique — he’s so toned that if you squeezed his pecs, his biceps would probably fly out and flex à la Johnny Bravo — but he’s also deeply unhappy. When his best friend and former frat brother Pete (Franco) gets engaged, Teddy is forced to reevaluate his place in the world, and comes up empty.
But, hey, at least he has those abs.
Letting these characters evolve without quite maturing is exactly what Neighbors 2 needed to do to keep its premise from wearing thin. The movie loses steam at the end when it needs to wrap everything up, but even then, Efron, Byrne, and Rogen make the sequel seem completely at ease with itself. That confidence not only gives Neighbors 2 more room to play but lets it catch a glimpse of itself in the mirror, see how ridiculous it looks, and burst out laughing.
2) This movie is explicitly feminist — and only funnier for it
In a refreshing twist, Neighbors 2 is a far more explicitly feminist comedy than Neighbors — and it loves that about itself.
When Shelby gets to college, she wants to do what she couldn’t in high school: make friends. She therefore turns to the Greek system, but quickly becomes disenchanted, and it’s not just about side-eyeing the tight pink dresses and fluttery golf claps of the biggest sorority on campus (led by a bubbly Selena Gomez). It’s about fighting against the sexist system that won’t let the sororities throw any parties, and the gross and creepy frat guys whose beer-soaked bashes are frequently demeaning and sometimes dangerous. It’s about making real friends.
And, yes, creating an unofficial, off-campus sorority is also about being able to light up a joint wherever she wants, whenever she wants.
So when Shelby, Beth, and Nora decide to start their own bastion of sisterhood, they do try to make “Kappa Nu” a different kind of sorority. They throw “Feminist Icon” parties, where three versions of Hillary Clinton can bicker and Oprah can tell everyone to look under their seats for free beer. They accept anyone and everyone who wants to rush, and soon enough they have plenty of misfit stoner girls to fill their huge new house.
But as the costs of maintaining a sorority and its crammed social calendar stack up, their feminist ideals start to disintegrate away, first slowly, then all at once.
Kappa Nu’s meltdown follows Delta Psi’s almost to the letter, which is to say that it’s both filthy and, as the sisters come to value their friendships built on a foundation of douchebaggery, weirdly touching.
The Neighbors 2 script was written by Stoller, Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and original Neighbors screenwriters Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien (who also penned the upcoming Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates), but when they assembled a writers’ room to punch up some of the jokes — a common Hollywood practice for big-budget comedies — they notably made sure to include more women than typically get a chance to contribute.
It shows. Kappa Nu’s interactions never feel perfunctory or two-dimensional. Shelby, Beth, Nora, and the rest of their new sisterhood are smart, immature, horny, and defiant. In other words, they’re realistic college freshmen, and seeing them onscreen as women is a rare joy.
Maybe not everyone will agree that feminism includes teenagers plastering a married couple’s house with used tampons. But as Shelby tells a horrified Teddy, there’s no reason to dismiss that as “too gross” when he — and just about every male-led bro comedy out there — would laugh forever at any variation on a bag of dicks.
Even Teddy has to concede that point. If there’s anything he can respect, it’s a college student fighting for her right to party.
3) The smartest thing Neighbors 2 does is laugh at itself — and call itself out when it indulges in gross behavior
While Neighbors was self-aware, mocking the machismo of its bros by throwing in genuinely sweet moments between frat guys and flailing parents alike, Neighbors 2 goes right ahead and tears apart the very genre of bro comedy with relish.
Take the moment when Shelby and her friends realize they want to throw their own parties. They walk into a frat, and it’s a horrifying nightmare: They’re immediately mobbed by leering dudes and encouraged to drink the sketchy punch beneath the off-putting, teeth-yellowing glow of a black light. As Beth puts it, it’s all “pretty rapey.”
Not coincidentally, this horrorshow is one of the most realistic frat parties I’ve ever seen onscreen — and for once, showing how unspeakably creepy these guys can be is actually the point.
Neighbors‘ ability to mock itself is what made it so refreshing — but if you thought Neighbors was self-aware, Neighbors 2 doubles down. The movie constantly calls itself out, taking digs at nauseating frat habits like objectifying every woman who walks through their door and other eyeroll-inducing bro behavior. It lets Shelby and her friends unabashedly dismiss sexist bullshit, but also lets them still be teenagers who are fucking up and figuring things out in their own time. It lets Byrne crack just as many jokes as Rogen, if not more.
In the hands of a lesser and lazier comedy, the reveal that Teddy’s best friend Pete is gay would have been played for “can you believe it?!” laughs; in Neighbors 2, it’s a genuinely sweet moment that’s never once the butt of the joke.
And so Neighbors 2 isn’t just a hilarious comedy; it’s a relief.
I don’t mean to suggest that Neighbors 2 relies any less than Neighbors did on jokes that want to make you laugh while choking on your popcorn in bemused horror. It’s just as proudly, joyfully disgusting. But it also boasts a layer of self-awareness that makes it that much easier to enjoy.
I’ve seen and loved so many movies and TV shows that I’ve had to make excuses for; my downtime is pretty much the Onion‘s “Woman Takes Short Half-Hour Break From Being Feminist To Enjoy TV Show.” But I very rarely had that problem with Neighbors 2, and, man, it felt amazing.
This movie loves that it can find humor where most other comedies aren’t bothering to look. It takes pride in making Rose Byrne’s mom character just as prone to being an idiot as Seth Rogen’s disheveled dad. It defies the idea that comedy has to feed into noxious stereotypes to be funny, and is so much richer for it.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is playing in theaters across the country.