A self-conscious update to the amiably testosterone-fueled 2014 original, Nicholas Stoller’s Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising labors to adapt to two years of manic social transition. The film’s expected rehash of recent pop-culture totems (Minions, The Fault in Our Stars) is accompanied by a novel attention to millennial-centric debates about entitlement and identity politics. Empathy, equality, and progressive norms rule the new day. Pete (Dave Franco), best bud and roommate to the eternally jacked fratboy Teddy (Zac Efron), is now an openly gay architect. Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), their vanishingly hip and newly pregnant ex-neighbors, are selling their home to an interracial couple as they prepare to decamp for a ritzier suburb. Meanwhile, a trio of female pledges (Chloë Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons, Beanie Feldstein) recoil at the party-, drug-, and gluten-free norms of sorority living, relocating to Delta Psi’s former home as the sisters of Kappa Nu. They intend to rage just as hard and as freely as the guys did, and they recruit the otherwise rudderless Teddy to help make their new venture thrive.
As enlightened sequels go, this isn’t exactly Magic Mike XXL, but the film does a serviceable job depicting the difficulties increasingly square adults encounter in their efforts to convey some wokeness. Mac and Kelly are hip to the tenor of their cultural moment, but their house is in escrow, and any party next door represents a threat to their upwardly mobile trajectory. At the same time, a uniquely Gen-X defeatism (symbolized by Mac’s Pearl Jam T-shirt) nags at them: They’re no longer good at being cool and, as with a bong-laden household and an infant that totes around a pink vibrator, they fear they’re also bad parents. The familiar prank war that ensues between Mac and Kelly and the ladies of Kappa Nu only heightens their raging insecurity.
Despite its au courant social commentary, the Neighbors franchise remains a safe haven for exposed skin and raunchy gross-out comedy. Along with the anticipated, mostly satisfying revivals of gags involving airbags and inept spy games, there are strong bits involving weaponized sexuality and outrageous crotch-centric humor. Neighbors 2 has the same genial, ultimately villain-free tone of the original, but the filmmakers fail to give the action at Kappa Nu a confident comedic pitch. Moretz’s Shelby is quick to deploy accusations of sexism to gain an argumentative upper hand, but the film dances around the idea that her actions are more emblematic of millennial selfishness than progressive politics. Perhaps even worse, the film marks a rare squandering of Byrne’s comedic firepower, flubbing repeated opportunities to complicate the relationship of an expectant mother to the entitled girls next door.
The most potent figure in this generational feud turns out to be the one major character who’s caught between them. While his best buds have attained respectable white- and blue-collar jobs, Efron’s Teddy is stuck wearing a fuzzy sweater at Abercrombie & Fitch after the store backs away from its use of shirtless models. Too old to be a mere Adonis and too dim and naïve to follow a career path, Teddy sinks into poignant desperation: All he wants is to be “of value” to someone, anyone. Shorn of the aimless aggression that made his performance in the original Neighbors such a surprise, Efron transforms Teddy into a beacon of lovable empathy, smoothing out a few of the rough patches attendant in the sequel’s transition from bro-centric raunch to an open-minded take on gender equality. Neighbors 2 doesn’t achieve much parity in its comedy, but the film is consistently elevated whenever Teddy is in the room, playing the social justice warrior or just learning how to hard-boil eggs.