“Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” has too many talented people involved in it for it not to be at least a little bit funny. But that’s all it is, a little bit funny. Over the course of its hour and a half running time, it inspires maybe three loud guffaws, a few modest chortles, a sub-sonic chuckle and a handful of silent smiles. That’s not enough to make it a worthy – or even worth making – sequel to the 2014 comedy, “Neighbors.”
The movie’s problems are peculiar because they almost seem contradictory. On the one hand, the set-up is so obvious, so designed to re-create the dynamics of the original movie, that it seems either a purely cynical exercise or so blatant a cynical exercise that it qualifies as a bold comic gesture: In the previous film, a newly married couple had to contend with a fraternity’s moving in next door. This time, a sorority takes over the same house.
The jokes are as coarse as the strategy is deliberate. Yet for all the movie’s boldness, its coarseness, its in-your-faceness, “Neighbors 2” is constrained by political correctness. The sorority is at least as bad as the fraternity ever was, but, because the couple is fighting girls, the movie has less fun with it. The girls act like villains, but the screenplay is unwilling to present them unsympathetically. The upshot is that “Neighbors 2” is mostly unpleasant without being funny or ultimately satisfying.
The screenplay ties itself into a knot from the start, when it presents the founding of the nasty sorority as a feminist event. Young Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz) is disheartened to find out that sororities, under national Greek rules, can’t throw parties. She is further disillusioned when she attends a frat party and finds the experience sexist and degrading. And so she joins forces with three new friends to establish a new sorority, independent of the Greek system.
In the new sorority, they throw parties that are just as loud and lewd and awful as the frat parties, though the movie expects us to recognize a difference that isn’t there. In any case, the parties are a source of misery to next-door neighbors Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), who don’t realize that what’s keeping them up at night isn’t mere raucousness, selfishness and noise, but burgeoning feminist assertion. Meanwhile, the movie makes it plain that this is coming at the worst possible time for the couple: They’ve bought a new house and need to sell the old one, which they’re currently occupying. But the sorority has made their property unsellable.
In “Neighbors,” the culprits were young men, and so director Nicholas Stoller and the screenwriters felt at liberty to present them as slobs – not evil, but ridiculous. By treating the sorority sisters of “Neighbors 2” with kid gloves, they rob them of humor and, inadvertently, make them more culpable (and therefore more dislikable) with every awful thing they do. They’re just not funny. And neither is Zac Efron as Teddy, who was the fraternity leader last time and here is presented as pathetic and needy.
Yet even with so-so material, Rogen is funny, and so is Byrne, whose comic facility was the revelation of the first “Neighbors.” But they’re so sympathetic that there’s little joy in witnessing their victimhood.
‘Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising’
Rated: R for crude sexual content including brief graphic nudity, language throughout, drug use and teen partying
Starring: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Chloe Grace Moretz
Directed by: Nicholas Stoller