Saturday, May 21, 2016

Girls Next Door

Year: 2016
Director: Nicholas Stoller
Cast: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

As you may recall, the frat comedy Neighbors landed on my Top 10 list of 2014. It’s a movie that really resonated with me, what with my love of college movies and shirtless Zac Efrons. But more than that, it was a definite surprise: a genuinely funny comedy that was from the Apatow school of filmmaking yet had a hilarious woman up front and center with the man-children. That woman was, of course, Rose Byrne, who proved in neighbors what she would cement in stone and toss into the river with Spy: that she is a tremendously gifted comic talent, capable of delivering outrageous punchlines with deadpan certainty.

As you might imagine, I brought a lot of baggage to Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. I won’t say the movie completely hefted the load, but it certainly called over a bellboy to pick up a suitcase or two and help me upstairs. But enough with this needlessly elaborate metaphor! Let’s let the movie answer for itself.

Well-spoken, Neighbors 2.

In Neighbors 2, Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) are living a quiet life (literally quiet since the frat next door moved out) with their daughter. When Kelly gets pregnant, they decide to move into a bigger home, but they skimp on the escrow, meaning that they have 30 days to keep the potential buyers convinced that they’re making the right decision, or else they will end up with two homes and empty bank accounts.

Unfortunately, as is wont to happen in comedy sequels, this is the exact time that a group of hard-partying sorority girls led by Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) decide to move in next door, frustrated by the American university system’s refusal to allow sororities to throw parties in official sorority houses. They are being mentored by Teddy (Zac Efron), the ex-frat president who is trying to find a place where he belongs now that his friends are all growing up, getting careers and fiancés and whatnot.

Now that we’ve plugged the requisite “man-child who needs to learn to grow up” into the Apatowian formula, let’s get this review rolling.

Basically, the fulcrum on which Neighbors 2 is balanced is sexism: what it is, how it works, what to do if you get it. This is most likely a knee-jerk response to Ann Hornaday’s wildly misguided claim that films like Neighbors promoted misogyny, more or less directly leading to the tragic shooting at UC Santa Barbara back in 2014. Obviously, I’m not here to defend Judd Apatow’s work as un-misogynist, having leveled that complaint against the man myself, but Neighbors (a production in which Apatow held no official role) was very unfairly caught in the crossfire.

However, the film’s use of feminist themes and lessons give depth to what is otherwise a pretty standard comedy sequel plot. It allows its protagonists a new avenue in which to grow rather than undoing their previous character arcs, thus continuing their story in a satisfying, organic manner. One drawback to this approach is a rather overstuffed cast list (between the Radners, the real estate people, the frat bros, the sorority girls, and the crammed-in cameos that waste returning players like Lisa Kudrow, the population of Neighbors 2 is higher than my hometown’s), but that’s a small price to pay for an actually interesting comedy part 2.

One admirably strange side effect of this approach is that it evokes the work of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. His films, including the famous Battleship Potemkin, have no discernible characters - focusing on the exploits of the collective rather than the individual. And such is the case here. Rather than any one character rising from the pack, it’s just an old collective vs. a young collective. This is not a compliment, but it’s too odd to be quite as frustrating as it could be.

However, the fact does remain that the sorority sisters, as the only major characters that are entirely new to the film, are given no opportunity to develop a real backstory or personality. The character moments for anyone are few and far between, but the girls really do get the short end of the stick, acting as mouthpieces for the film’s feminist themes rather than genuine, unique personalities, skating through a plot that we’ve seen a million times and thus doesn’t feel the need to go into too much detail.

Chloë Grace Moretz does manage some interesting work, ingraining her overconfident bravado with a vulnerable fear about finally being out on her own for the first time and not really understanding how the world works. But overall, her performance falls back a little too often on hers standard, shouted line readings to really assert itself.

By the way, if possible, I’d like some kind of plaque to acknowledge that I’m the first person to ever compare a Zac Efron movie to Battleship Potemkin.

I suppose that, buried beneath the dissertation on sexism, there’s a comedy movie in there somewhere, so let’s talk about it. Neighbors 2 opens with a surprisingly delightful scene that adds a fresh tag onto a totally predictable joke, breathing new life into its gross-out humor and proving that this sequel will have the exact same crude sensibility that made it such a gonzo comedy the first time around.

Obviously, the humor is a notch or so lower than the original, such is the price of sequeldom. But all things considered, Neighbors 2 is a bit of triumph, maintaining much of its comic potency thanks to Rose Byrne’s continuing excellence in the field of machete sharp comic timing and Zac Efron’s continuing willingness to poke fun at himself, adding an element of giddy darkness to his role this time around. If Dirty Grandpa didn’t hang on his filmography like a malignant lump, I might say hew was improving by the year.

There are a lot of genuine laughs in Neighbors 2, especially if your sense of humor is as sophomoric as mine tends to be in my shameful heart of hearts. Only one gag truly rankles, a bit on police racism that scrapes across the film like a jagged edge, capsizing the comedy’s tone with a whiff of too-grim hyperviolence. But other than that, neighbors is a peculiarly solid sequel, never matching its predecessor but always defeating the middling expectations of a comedy continuation.

TL;DR: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is an excellent continuation of the original film that's a little too overstuffed to have any real characters but nevertheless funny.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1104
Reviews In This Series
Neighbors (Stoller, 2014)
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (Stoller, 2016)

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