Can a raunchy frat-boy comedy also serve as a vehicle for socially progressive messages about female empowerment and gay-straight acceptance? Perhaps, but if “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” is any indication, it would need people far more accomplished than the ones behind this movie to pull it off. Credit for trying is not the same as applause for succeeding.
The picture is, of course, a sequel to 2014’s “Neighbors,” in which Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne played Mac and Kelly Radner, a young married couple unlucky enough to have a rowdy fraternity move in next door. When they complained about the noise, it started a conflict with the frat’s leader Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) that escalated into a mini-war.
It’s now a few years later; the frat house is deserted, and Mac and Kelly are selling theirs, having already purchased a new one (only one instance of their lack of financial smarts). They find a nice couple who sign a contract, putting their current place is put in escrow (a concept which the dim-bulb couple don’t understand). Simultaneously incoming college freshman Shelby (Chloe Grace Moritz), annoyed that dorm life is restrictive and authorized sororities can’t host parties, decides to create a new sisterhood—Kappa Nu—with her new BFFs Beth and Nora (Kiersey Clemons and Beanie Feldstein), but the rent on the old frat house seems out of reach.
Reenter Teddy, who’s having a twenty-something crisis. His clerking job at Abercrombie & Fitch has gone south, and his old frat brothers are moving on with their lives; one of them, Garf (Jerrod Carmichael), has become a cop, and Teddy’s erstwhile lieutenant Pete (Dave Franco), whom he’s been rooming with, is getting married to another of their brothers (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), which means that Teddy will have to move out. He takes refuge at the old frat house just as Shelby is looking the place over, and offers his services as an advisor to the girls. Before long Kappa Nu is up and running, and the noise threatens to derail the Radners’ house sale if the prospective buyers should use the escrow clause to back out of the deal—which would leave them in financial ruin, with two houses on their hands.
All seems lot until Shelby turns on Teddy, whose advice seems too old-fashioned (he tries to nix a scheme to bolster the sorority’s finances by selling weed). Unceremoniously dumped, Teddy offers his services to Mac and Kelly; they enlist their friends Jimmy and Paula (Ike Barinholtz and Carla Gallo), and together the quintet attempt to sabotage Shelby’s plans. Naturally the level of tit-for-tat rises exponentially, though some of it (like a signature air bag bit) is recycled from the earlier movie. Need we say that everything works out for everybody in the end?
The best part of “Neighbors 2” is definitely Efron. He has a real gift for comedy of the dimwitted variety, exhibiting an ability to play dumb and likable simultaneously. (It’s a skill he shares, coincidentally, with Ryan Gosling, who manages the same trick in “The Nice Guys,” also opening this week.) And, of course, he is, as Shelby and her confederates admit, hot (even though they add “for an old guy”), and is equally happy showing off his physique as he is doing slapstick pratfalls.
The news is less happy elsewhere. Byrne is given less opportunity to shine this time around, while Rogen just does his usual shtick. To be fair, the material they’re handed is pretty lame. A big vomit joke near the start is repulsive, a running gag about kids playing with dildos isn’t much better, a sequence involving texting is—like all such scenes involving phone and computer screens—boring, and the ubiquitous drug humor often falls flat. But since Rogen had a hand in writing the script, he’s as much at fault in that respect as anybody. Barinholtz and Gallo overplay to the hilt, and fare no better.
By contrast, Moretz manages the shift from hard-edged to sweetly-at-sea well enough, but the fact that she has to is a problem in itself: the picture wants to make a statement about girls having parity with men, but since Shelby and her comrades-in-arms don’t prove to be particularly bright, the point is rather lost. And while it’s nice that the picture not only shies away from the casual homophobia so characteristic of movies of this ilk but actually espouses an easygoing acceptance instead, the result is pretty bland, down to the placidity of Franco’s performance, especially when compared to his manic quality in the earlier installment. Veteran Lisa Kudrow is pretty much wasted in her cameo return as the college dean, though Kelsey Grammer comes off better in his brief appearance as Shelby’s overindulgent dad. One needn’t spend much time on Stoller’s direction, which comes across as fairly slapdash, or on the picture’s technical side, which is adequate but little more; the effects in the air-bag sequence are awful, one hopes intentionally.
“Neighbors 2” isn’t the exercise in gross-out excess the first movie was, but its pairing of a tamer version of the old recipe with some laudable but imperfectly delivered PC messages makes for an alternately vulgar and tepid brew.