It’s been two years since we were delightfully surprised by “Neighbors,” a raunchy comedy about new parents vs. the fraternity next door that was lean, well-written, and funny, not loose and sloppy like raunchy comedies often are. The sequel, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” is another improbable achievement: it’s as funny as the first one, the characters continue to grow, and it’s not sleazy or sexist even though it’s about sorority girls.
Again directed by Nicholas Stoller, with returning screenwriters Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien sharing credit with Stoller, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg, the film finds Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) preparing for a second child and selling their home. The house next door has been empty since the frat got kicked out — but wouldn’t you know it, just as Mac and Kelly go into escrow, a sorority moves in and starts partying, threatening to scuttle their sale.
This sequel was probably conceived around that pitch — “This time, a sorority lives next door!” — but they reverse-engineered it into a reasonably plausible scenario. You see, three freshman girls at the local college — stoner Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), pretty Beth (Kiersey Clemons), and wild Nora (Beanie Feldstein) — were crestfallen to learn that only fraternity houses are allowed to host parties, not sororities. (This is actually true.) And frat parties are … you know … rapey. And often ho-themed.
So the girls have started their own sorority, one that’s not part of the official Greek system and can set its own rules and throw all the parties it wants to. (One is feminist icon themed, with girls dressed as Joan of Arc, Hillary Clinton, and Oprah Winfrey, all drinking beer and smoking pot.) Mac and Kelly gird their loins for another war with rowdy neighbors, this time getting assistance from Teddy (Zac Efron), the now-graduated ringleader of the frat from the first movie. Now out in the world, Teddy has become a sensitive, wandering soul. His bros have careers and lovers, but Teddy remains unfulfilled — “unvalued,” to use his word. He’s on the girls’ side briefly, until he realizes he’s just another “old person” to them and switches sides.
The back-and-forth shenanigans between the sorority and the neighbors are good for some raucous, boundary-pushing laughs, culminating in a scheme to steal the girls’ huge supply of marijuana. (Pot figures heavily into the plot, but it’s not a stoner comedy.) The girls, meanwhile, try to drive a wedge between Mac and Kelly by causing a miscommunication, and this sequence is the film’s only real misfire. The specific method the screenwriters came up with doesn’t land, humorwise, and is stretched past believability.
It’s a fun variation to see Mac and Teddy, the schlub and the frat boy, working together instead of against each other. But it’s Mac and Kelly who remain the heart of these movies, a passionately in-love married couple who work as equal partners and are equally clueless about things like what escrow is and how “sorority” is spelled. Their panic over whether they’ll sell their house, whether they’re good parents, whether they can even handle a second child, is funny and relatable.
The compassion that the film has for Mac and Kelly is extended to everyone, including their opponents. The sorority girls aren’t villains deliberately screwing up their neighbors’ lives, nor are they brainless party animals. They’re smart college students who are frustrated by the restrictions placed upon them and by the dangers they face as women in a Greek system fueled by booze and roofies. Nor are Teddy and his frat bros (Dave Franco and Jerrod Carmichael have a few scenes) the targets of ridicule. They, too, are treated as three-dimensional characters who have evolved past their Neanderthal ways while remaining themselves, and their relationships with each other are adorably hilarious. The only stereotypical “frat boys” in the movie are a couple of unnamed doofuses who serve as representations of the bad behavior that often goes on at their parties.
It’s that rare movie that’s unabashedly vulgar — boy howdy, is it — yet humane and affectionate rather than abrasive. These characters say and do filthy things, but they’re not nasty people, any of them. The humor is never mean. That’s not to mention the casually empowering message to girls, which comes without tearing down boys or sacrificing laughs. It’s a deeply funny, hard-R-rated comedy that doesn’t leave you feeling like you need a shower afterward.
B+ (1 hr., 32 min.; )