June 9 2016 09:42 AM

‘Neighbors 2’ features familiar premise, progressive politics

I hesitate to say that if you liked “Neighbors,” you’ll like “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.” While the two films are similar in many ways, “Neighbors 2” is a different — and ultimately better — film, but one that certain fans of the first might not appreciate.

In terms of story, Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) have another noisy college Greek society to contend with. But this time, the stakes are higher. It’s not just that the new feminist sorority next door, Kappa Nu, is nuisance, it’s that the Radners have just purchased a new home and are in a 30-day escrow with the buyers of their current house. If the new buyers stop by at any time and are displeased, they can back out of the deal.

It’s a slightly different set-up, but “Neighbors 2” soon returns to its predecessor’s formula of an absurdly destructive prank war with the college kids next door. Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), the frat leader from the first film, returns, but is on the Radner’s team this time around.

The humor is raunchy, gross and vulgar, maybe more so than the first film. Some gags are downright repulsive — but hilariously so. The film is certainly is funny, but it’s not revolutionary.

Where “Neighbors 2” deviates from and improves on “Neighbors” is in its worldview. The inherent problem of the first film was that centering on a frat house inevitably led to bro-ish, patriarchal humor with penis and fart jokes galore. The film still retains this sensibility, but is undeniably more feminist. The new sorority, founded by Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz), Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Felstein), is a subversion of sexist rules that prevent sororities from hosting their own parties and a rejection of the culture of rape and misogyny that permeates fraternity life. Mac and Kelly, who have a young daughter and another on the way, are sympathetic and don’t want to stand in the way of young women feeling safe and empowered, especially on a college campus. But adult practicalities stand in the way of youthful idealism. The film eventually comes to the conclusion that feminism benefits all and isn’t something to be tolerated, but embraced and celebrated.

Due to these progressive leanings, I’ve seen the film compared to two ideologically similar films from last year: “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Magic Mike XXL.” All three films have been praised for “sneaking” feminism into unexpected genres, whether it’s action film, gross-out comedy or whatever the hell genre “XXL” is. (Erotic musical drama? Stripper road comedy?)

But “Neighbors 2” is less successful in this than the other two films. That’s not to say the film is disingenuous about its gender politics, because it’s not. There is no lip service being paid, no mixed messages being sent, no confusion in regards to what the film is trying to say versus what it’s actually saying. The problem is that the film says these things loudly and heavy-handedly, spelling it out for you from the get-go, never for a second letting you forget what its goals are. That stands in contrast to “Fury Road” and “XXL,” where progressive ideas on gender, masculinity, female autonomy and sexuality are developed organically and feel woven into the film’s very fabric. In those films, the feminism is there, but it’s just not beating you over the head with a giant rubber dildo like “Neighbors 2.”

This is a problem when we think about the film’s intended audience. The film’s message seems to be aimed at young, college-age men. But because the film screams its point from the rooftops, even the most unenlightened, uncritical, cinematically illiterate viewer will pick up on what the film is saying. And I think that hurts the film, since most of the bros who come to see this film are probably expecting a dumb, raunchy Seth Rogen comedy. Instead, they’re going to think they accidentally strolled into a women’s lib course. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I’m skeptical of how many young dudes would respond to, let alone accept, this rather blatant challenge to their patriarchal privilege. Call me cynical, but I expect most of them will reject it, if not walk out of the theater right in the middle of the film. A subtler approach might have achieved the desired effect.

But that’s only the first of the two major issues. The second has to do with craft, form and filmmaking, which are virtually non-existent, bland and lazy. This is another area where “Neighbors 2” fails in comparison to “Fury Road” and “XXL.” Director Nicholas Stoller falls into the trap that most American comedies have fallen into for the past 15 to 20 years: over-reliance on semi-improvised dialogue and performance for much of its style and humor. This approach may result in a funny, quotable line here or there, but makes for rather uninspiring, unmemorable cinema. Stoller does have more inventiveness than peers such as Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” “Trainwreck”) Adam McKay (“Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights,” “Step Brothers”) and Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “Spy,” the upcoming “Ghostbusters” reboot). A riff on the airbag gags from the first film gets a solid laugh purely from its framing, and there’s a pretty wonderful set-piece that involves a weed heist at a tailgate, but by and large, Stoller’s direction, and the performances of the actors, lack commitment and feel lazy.

In the scene immediately following the aforementioned weed heist, the shortcomings are all the more glaring due this juxtaposition. The scene involves the Radners discussing Teddy’s life goals with him. It’s filmed in a typical shot/reverse-shot set up, except it’s cut much faster than you’re used to seeing, even in modern comedy films. It’s meant to give the scene speed and energy, like the a witty back-and-forth that Howard Hawks used to do in “His Girl Friday” or “Bringing Up Baby.” But Hawks would shoot a scene in a medium shot with all the characters in the same frame, and the actors would actually talk that fast, giving the scene a palpable energy. Here, Stoller and editor Zene Baker cut faster in order to keep up with that kind of pace, and the resulting scene feels rushed. Its hardly a scene at all, just a series of jokes that actors say at — not to — each other.

“Neighbors 2” ultimately suffers from the same problems as “Neighbors,” with the lack of craft the most glaring of them. But is one of the rare sequels that is better than the film that preceded it, due to its evolving politics. “Neighbors 2” is only great in relation to “Neighbors.” It’s a good sequel, but only an okay film.

Grade: C