The men are still running the show; it’s their world, the girls are just borrowing their bong.
Girls just wanna have fun, or at least, the ones in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising do. The sequel to 2014’s hit Neighbors switches focus from hard-partying frat bros to hard-partying sorority sisters, introducing a nominally feminist message into a world of aggressive, slapstick comedy and bawdy, male-oriented gross-out humor. There’s nothing to suggest that feminism and dick jokes can’t peacefully coexist, but Neighbors 2 might have you thinking otherwise. The film makes the “no duh” argument that girls can be just as wild and crazy as guys, and there’s nothing wrong with that because, like, equal rights and stuff. If that passes as cogent social commentary, Neighbors 2 has it in spades. But if the film’s observations on rape culture and the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, regardless of how sincere and well-meaning they appear to be, feel forced and half-formed, it’s probably because the script was written by five—count ‘em, five!—white dudes perfectly equipped to express the sophomoric charms of carefree stoners, but not necessarily the plight of young women.
Should Neighbors 2 get points for trying? Absolutely. There’s no denying that this particular brand of comedy—farcical fables about arrested development, heroic immaturity and a distinct fear of adulthood and responsibility—isn’t exactly female-friendly. Neither is Greek life, for that matter. More and more studies show that it’s actually a detriment to women’s safety, something the film acknowledges when it places three freshmen and sorority hopefuls (Chloë Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons and Beanie Feldstein) in a crowded frat party that feels “super rapey.” When they realize life in a traditional sorority would mean dealing with sexist double standards and potentially dangerous fraternities, they start an off-campus sisterhood dubbed Kappa Nu in a house previously occupied by Delta Psi, the frat from the first film. Delta Psi is long gone, but fussy next-door neighbors Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) are still around, and the couple is none too pleased to be dealing with more unruly college kids, especially with their house in escrow and another baby on the way.
An elaborate prank war ensues, and though the film falls into the same basic pattern as its predecessor, many of the gags come with huge laughs, including a funny scene at a tailgate party that also counts as one of the better heist sequences in recent history. The story succeeds in the same way the first one did: by showcasing the absurdity and stubbornness of each side, and framing them both as equal parts hero and villain. Teddy (Zac Efron), the de facto antagonist from the original film, actually plays for both sides. As his friends settle into marriage and successful jobs, he’s stuck in a rut and looking for somewhere to belong. He first helps the inexperienced Kappa Nu get their operation off the ground, but when they exile him for “being old,” he joins Mac and Kelly’s side, where he learns key lessons about adulthood, including the complexities of boiling water. (“It makes eggs hard, but noodles soft. . .”)
Director Nicholas Stoller is ever the Judd Apatow acolyte but he doesn’t share his mentor’s aversion to brevity. At 92 minutes, the bulk of which is dedicated to riffed dialogue and improvised one-liners, Neighbors 2 feels too short; its narrative stretched paper-thin across an expansive emotional landscape. His frat bros having moved on without him, Teddy’s worried he’ll never be of value to anyone again (we know this because he says it on at least four separate occasions); Mac and Kelly are dealing with the same basic fears they had in the first film, that of growing older, being good parents and being responsible adults. The film succeeds well enough as a slapstick romp, but Stoller, adhering strictly as ever to the increasingly worn Apatowian model, strains to show us the heart that exists amid all this cartoonish mayhem. The emotional undercurrents are given cursory glances, at best.
The film’s political viewpoints are also given short shrift, though unlike Teddy’s lack of self-worth or Mac and Kelly’s insecurity, it’s not as easily forgiven with a well-timed punchline or memorable turn of phrase. Stoller doesn’t pay lip service to feminism, but it’s not as if he grants the renegade sorority sisters the same agency enjoyed by the guys from Delta Psi. Teddy steers the Kappa Nu ship in the beginning, but he never required a mentor figure in the first film; during the rushed climax, a male character feeds a female character a vaguely feminist line that sets everything right and gives everyone a happy ending. In other words, the men are still running the show; it’s their world, the girls are just borrowing their bong.