Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising review

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is one of those "sequels that are better than the original" films, and I'll admit to being pretty surprised by that.

The first Neighbors was a pretty funny movie that relied on a lot of sharp joke writing and sight gags to get laughs, and it was underpinned by a few human moments that made things feel more real. It was enough to mask a story that was less narrative and more escalation for progressively more extreme punchlines. And when the credits rolled, the last thing I imagined was that it had anywhere else to go. It was a concept that felt well-mined.

As Neighbors 2 opens, it feels like more of the same. Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) are looking to sell their house as their family grows, and they find a buyer, with a catch — the house will remain in escrow for 30 days while the prospective buyers determine whether everything is on the up and up.

Meanwhile, college freshman Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz) is rushing a sorority on campus to make the friends she never had in high school, but is stunned to learn that sororities can't actually throw their own parties. Instead, according to the bylaws of the Greek system, they must rely on fraternities for their debauchery. It's worth mentioning that the slightly goofy but mostly grounded tone of the movie dramatically changes at this moment, as Phi Lambda president Selena Gomez soberly educates pledges — and, almost hamfistedly, the audience — about what sororities are or aren't allowed to do. It's not subtle, and in fact feels very deliberate.

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Back in their dorm after a disastrous and disheartening first frat party experience, Shelby and her new friends Beth (Kiersey Clemons, whom you may remember from Dope) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein) come up with a plan to start their own sorority. They find the former home of Delta Psi Beta and inside, a despondent, drifting Teddy (Zac Efron), who in turn finds a purpose: helping the women of the newly christened Kappa Nu build their sorority from the ashes of his former glory.

Next door to Mac and Kelly.

From there, it's once again an escalating war of pranks and slapstick, over-the-top intrigue that feels somewhat familiar. But where Neighbors relied on actor performances to fill in the blanks of character that the script never really made clear, there's an underlying heart to Sorority Rising that's more specifically articulated. Motivations are more obvious: Shelby and her friends want to have the fun and experimentation they were promised with college life without the dangers and pitfalls of the Greek system; Mac and Kelly want what's best for their daughter and have already bought another house, so losing the sale on their current home would ruin them financially; Teddy's friends are growing up and moving on, becoming adults, and he feels left behind and directionless.

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That heart combines with a real sense of self-awareness and self-criticism that seems at times directly pointed at the original film. There's a frequent acknowledgment of gender-oriented biases that the sorority has to operate under; are bloody tampons over the line when, say, a bag of dicks would just be funny? And Sorority Rising is honest enough with itself to answer the question in-scene instead of cravenly leaving the point on the table for someone else to pick up.

One of the secret strengths of the original film was the actual love and friendship the Delta Psi brothers shared, even as Mac and Kelly sought to drive a wedge between them. That same quality is here in, say, Kappa Nu's celebration of a member losing their virginity, or their quick group decisionmaking. Rogen and Byrne's on-screen rapport and chemistry remains a great, goofy anchor for the constantly ridiculous events that unfold. Efron gets a lot more meat to chew as Teddy this time around, and he even gets some time to grow with his old frat brothers to boot. The jokes are carried along by some strong character development that doesn't feel overly convenient until the end of the film.

Neighbors 2 is interesting as a semi-gross-out comedy with a conscience and a heart, but thankfully, it's also funny. It's not losing anything by acknowledging that the phrase bros before hos "isn't cool anymore," or that frat parties are scary and often feel kind of rapey. It mines those things for humor and continues the airbag-driven physical comedy that made the first movie fun. It's a comedy that I laughed out loud at, and don't feel the need to make excuses for afterward. And that's something pretty different from many of its contemporaries.