01 June 2016

First Impressions: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

Neighbors (2014) may not be Seth Rogen's funniest or most clever film, but it's certainly his most accessible. Also I say this with the consideration that it's at least in the top three, depending on mood, phase of the moon, and time of year. Needless to say, with the amount of confidence I have in the surround production team, I was eagerly looking forward to Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016). The result is very good, and I at least continually wavered back and forth debating whether or not it matched, surpassed, or came up short of its predecessor. SPOILERS forever from here on out, so deal with that.

In terms of comedy sequels, I've discussed the topic ad nauseum around here, last when this film dropped a few weeks ago. Sorority Rising is successful in the sense that although it does mostly just change the X's and O's (exchange a problematic Fraternity with a problematic Sorority and exchange care for a new baby for trying to sell the house), it never feels like a straight re-tread and the evolution of characters and themes keep pushing the narrative forward more than just spinning their wheels.
Truly about to enter the Efroneissance...

It's a common complaint that a sequel will reset our heroes in awkward and off-putting ways. The most famous is probably Ghostbusters II (1989), which really shits on all its protagonists, smacking them down from New York Heroes to slumming around children's parties and hosting psychic talk shows. It's a depressing regression. Neighbors 2 avoids this by starting the film with the Radnor family (Seth, Rose Byrne, and their daughter) as strong as ever, if not simply dealing with an expanding family and entrenched parenthood. It's still a natural progression from where they were last time. Their contemporaries, Jimmy and Paula, whose on-again, off-again relationship I barely remembered are similarly extrapolated. The key component is Zac Efron's Teddy, whose life is in shambles, although it was always doomed from where Neighbors left him, indeed that was a bit theme in the previous film.

The really interesting thing that Sorority Rising does, though, is spend quite a bit of time up front thoroughly establishing where the three major groups of characters are. It first lays out all the stakes for Seth and Rose, their desire to keep moving forward as parents coupled with their insecurity in their own ability to be good parents, which is not unfounded at all. It then spends a bit of time with the old Delta Psi brothers, but wisely doesn't get too hung up on them other than establishing Teddy's motivation for moving out and "finding his value."

From there, though, it circles to a gaggle of new characters, the eponymous Sorority that starts Rising, particularly the freshman trio of Chloe Grace-Moretz (from everything), Kiersey Clemons (from DOPE [2014]), and Beanie Feldstein (from nothing). The film approaches preachiness, but generally trades it for a righteous indictment of both a collegiate and societal system of inequality directed towards college women who want to party but not get raped. Is that so much to ask? The flick artfully constructs their motivation, without room to party in their own house, the skeeziness of the frat house alternative, and the impracticality of dorm room fiestas. It's not necessarily just the ladies wanting to party, either, although that would be fine motivation on its own. It's more their effort to escape a society where men who aren't looking out for their best interest control all the rules.

These themes are laid out very plainly, and from a screenwriting aspect, these initially established motivations are all pretty meaningful, and crash into each other again and again, providing genuine reasons behind each group's actions. The Radnors are dealing with the pull of adulthood which can come reluctantly and unnatural to them. Teddy is trying to find his place in the world like any recent graduate, although he's played up so insanely with shades of narcissism, arrested development, and dumbness that it doesn't feel like a retread. The Sorority encapsulates womanhood, a strive for strong female independence, and an effort to level the playing field. And avoid rape. That's a real damn serious college issue which the film easily addresses by simply placing us in the shoes of a freshman girl at her first frat party, where she'd rather be hanging out with her friends instead of a bunch of dudes who want to bang her.
It's as if this movie was made just to make the
announcement, "Sororities can't have parties?
Really? That's fucked up!"

This is where Neighbors 2 starts trading in this weird dichotomy where it's simultaneously a very strong pro-feminist movie but also a ridiculous bro movie. This is encapsulated best in Zac Efron, who comes to the shocking self-realization that all of his Frat Parties involved a ho's theme. It's important too that there's such a strong homosexual overtone to the bro-ness, one that is accepted without much issue or thought. It really feels like a 2016 film where these topics are more matter-of-fact normal life things rather than presented as controversial or touchy subjects. It's a matter of fact that Dave Franco gets gay married at the end, so much so that it's not even important to show the wedding. This and the rampant feminism is not presented with a proud superior progressive grin, but with a sense that this is just how things are. This is one of the reasons why I think this series is probably close to being the decade's definitive College film, which we get about every ten years, following Animal House (1978), Revenge of the Nerds (1984), PCU (1994), and Old School (2003). There can be lots of debate about this. Let's not let it tear us apart, Lisa.

Above all else, the important thing is that it handles these PC subjects (speaking of PCU...) while being really really funny. It's a slap in the face to Jerry Seinfeld who bitches that you can't be funny on college campuses anymore because you'll offend someone. That's not really true because 1) Seinfeld never really courted controversy in a crass sense, perhaps only in a sense of catering to Upper West Side white people instead of inclusiveness, and 2) it's more simply favoring a return to a time when the kind of humour you were comfortable making was in vogue and not adapting to the shifting tastes of a new generation.

But now I'm sidetracked. There are moments when Sorority Rising matches the laugh-a-thon of its predecessor and possibly surpasses it. The entire tailgating sequence is pretty sublime, although the careful, drawn-out dramatic set-up to the airbag launch is masterfully constructed with a fantastic pay-off that plays on narrative expectations. The movie continually writes itself in and out of corners in unpredictable ways, and channeling the main gag from the first film without relying on the same joke is a stroke of brilliance.

While this is a rave round of first impressions there's a little bit that holds me back from absolutely loving this film and devoting my life towards worshiping its greatness. That probably simply comes back to that lack of surprise or punch that most comedy sequels lack. This one doesn't feel like it ran out of steam or things for its characters to do, but there's something softening when we take a third go. There's also little to no exposition or pick-up from who the returning characters are, and having only seen Neighbors once, I was actually a little slow on the uptake. Did Dave Franco turn gay at the end? I don't even remember. It's possible the producers relied on the widespread dissemination in dorms and college viewing over the past two years. I can tell you, my freshman year in 2004 I would have needed no refresher at all to see sequels to Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004).

There's the possibility that the film overreaches itself in spreading around too much empathy. Director Nicholas Stoller famously believes that villains have no place in a comedy, and if you look at Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) and Get Him to the Greek (2010), that's largely true, with more frenemies and interpersonal conflict providing the forward momentum rather than White Goodman. I wonder if he would have succeeded a little bit more by truly making his characters despicable, though? Of course that would have made it difficult for Teddy to come over to Side Radner this go around, and also create some surely one-dimensional characters on the Sorority Encampment.

What did you think of Neighbors 2? Does it hold up among the greatest comedy sequels of all time? I'd say pretty pretty pretty much.

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