It was the first five minutes into Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising when I started to get worried. We're at a frat party, the first frat party for Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein), when a random journey up the frat house stairs quietly reveals the most dreadful of signs - "No Means Yes," fodder for potentially tasteless humor about frat house rape culture and the kind of joke that would have instantly turned me off of the film.
Here's the thing. It didn't go there. Surprisingly enough, it didn't go there.
In fact, it didn't take too awful long to realize that Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising was going to be that rare sequel to transcend its original by going smarter when the former went dumber and finding meaning no matter how chaotic the madness. While it's not a flawless film, far from it, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising takes everything you liked about the original film and turns it into an even better film.
Neighbors never quite attained that balance between testosterone-driven frat culture and the film's overall unabashed embrace of its characters and insightfulness. Neighbors 2, on the other hand, seems to almost immediately be achieving what would seem nearly impossible - a truly raunchy comedy filled with progressive values and an individualistic feminism that one can't help but celebrate.
No, really. I'm being serious here.
Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are slightly wiser in life having survived their last neighborhood battle. Daughter Stella (once again played by Zoey Vargas, what a brilliant stroke of casting!) is a toddler now and Kelly is pregnant with their second child. They've just bought a bigger home and as the film opens their current house is entering a 30-day escrow period. All they have to do is make sure nothing goes wrong in that 30 days.
That can't be difficult, can it? After all, the fraternity is gone.
After coming face-to-face with the Greek system's sexist ways, first during an initial pledge gathering at the campus's most popularity sorority and later at the aforementioned frat party, Shelby, Beth and Nora are clearly as committed to having a good time as they are to breaking the rules and fighting against patriarchal ways. The three young women decide to start a rogue sorority that exists outside the traditional Greek system, a fact that will allow them to ignore antiquated sexist rules like sororities being unable to host parties while fraternities can.
Now then, if you think that director Nicholas Stoller and returning writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien are content to assemble a female-centered replay of the original film think again.
Oh sure, certain things are obvious. This fledgling sorority will, in fact, move in to the house next door to Mac and Kelly. It seems inevitable that the two parties won't exactly hit it off well and the battle will escalate in increasingly rauncy, naughty and rather hilarious ways.
It should also go without saying that Teddy (Zac Efron) is going to be back on the scene here, not particularly wiser but getting really, really close.
Yet, there's more going on here.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising raises the bar for raunchy comedies, because the film manages to maintain its commitment to raunchy humor while still managing to be about something. While the feminism is occasionally rather paint-by-numbers, the fact that it's here at all is astounding and the fact that it's so seamlessly woven into the fabric of the film is nothing short of miraculous. One-liners, genuinely funny one-liners, are delivered throughout the film such as a dance sequence set to Big Freedia that we think is going one, fairly predictable direction when suddenly everything completely changes. Time and again, Neighbors 2 makes us laugh at the sexism then stops and reminds us that it's sexism.
Moretz has already proven to us before that she has impeccable comic timing and intelligence and it's clear that she saw in Neighbors 2 its potential to be something quite a bit more. Moretz is bold and brash and impulsive, yet she's not the usual comic who fills this type of role. Instead, she's an actress and she makes us actually feel something for Shelby. Kiersey Clemons, one of the stand-outs from last year's Dope, hits a homer as Beth while newcomer Beanie Feldstein may be true find of Neighbors 2.
Even though Zac Efron's career hasn't quite hit the level of his High School Musical days, he's proven time and again that he's one of the few former teen idols with enough genuine talent to build a meaningful adult career. Oh sure, he plays on his sexiness here. Oh sure, he takes off his shirt. A lot. But, he's in on the joke and he adds an emotional honesty that gives the film some of its most authentic moments. Teddy's buddies are here, as well, though they're pretty much background players, though the film's handling of Pete, now a gay man getting ready to marry, with surprising sensitivity and zero laughs about the homosexuality itself.
If Neighbors 2 has a fault, it's that amidst all that feminism it plays timidly with the idea of sexuality. While our ladies are seen as pot smoking party girls, they are only occasionally glimpsed through a lens of sexuality. A scene involving Teddy dancing at a tailgate party implies all the girls going crazy over him, yet there was nary a hint of sexual tension during a brief period of time when he actually lived in the house.
What's up with that?
There are also times when the pacing seems just a wee bit off, as if Stoller couldn't quite decide if we were going for laughs or going for a more sensitive moment. In the end, these scenes end up playing out with mostly muted laughs.
At a mere 92 minutes in length, Neighbors 2 serves up far more hits than misses including a couple cameos that work including Lisa Kudrow and a pretty hilarious and pointed bit involving comic Hannibal Buress.
Most of the time, when these raunchy comedies make enough to warrant a sequel, we end up cringing our way through familiar territory and tired laughs. While much of Neighbors 2 is familiar, the performances keep it fresh and it feels like Stoller figured out what didn't work the first time and made it work this time. In the end, these are neighbors you won't mind visiting again.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic