Thursday, May 26, 2016

'Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising' review

While I know that it's a mainstream Seth Rogen vehicle, Neighbors still feels like one of the first films that I truly discovered. I saw it nearly a month early at an audience pre-screening (shout out to Regal Crown Club), and I immediately fell in love with the film's raunchy audacity. Blending the social satire of Judd Apatow's best with the frat boy hijinks of Animal House, Neighbors is a dynamite comedy. It began Seth Rogen's career transition, it gave Rose Byrne more great comedic material to work with, and it established Zac Efron as Hollywood's newest R-rated comedy superstar. When it broke out in May 2014, I wasn't surprised in the slightest. It's the kind of wild low-budget comedy that modern audiences simply eat up, and in Neighbors' case, the movie broke out beyond the typical audience for these films. By all accounts. Nicholas Stoller's film was a massive hit. Of course, a sequel was not far behind.

Everyone is back for Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, a sequel that has arrived in theaters with significantly less fanfare and excitement. The film grossed a mere $21.7 million last weekend, a debut that was a far cry from industry estimates and a massive drop from the original's $49 million opening frame. And honestly, while I was predicting a much bigger opening, I could have seen this coming. When Neighbors came out, people were clamoring to see it at my school. With Sorority Rising? Not so much. The film has almost been a non-factor, and it looks like it will go down as another forgotten comedy sequel. There will be no 22 Jump Street-esque success for Rogen and his crew this time around. 

However, for audiences still interested in seeing the misadventures of Mac and Kelly Radner (Rogen and Byrne), there's plenty to like in this sequel. Of course, as a follow-up effort to a movie that had a brilliant concept, Neighbors 2 retreads some familiar territory. The idea of a sorority moving into the same house as Zac Efron's Delta Psi is flat-out absurd, and the ever-increasing antics of the Radners are still ridiculous. But thanks to a strong script that places its focus on the compelling and likable characters, Neighbors 2 works very well. It's essentially a very raunchy suburban sitcom, with a strongly progressive bend and many more dildo jokes. It never reaches the heights of the original, but it's a mostly good time at the theater. 

Mac and Kelly are a good time removed from their battle against fraternity bros Teddy (Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco), and they're now preparing to sell their house and have a second kid. They get an offer on their house, but before it can be sold, it has to enter a 30-day "escrow" period. They just have to keep things together for 30 days and then the deal is done. Easy, right? Well, not if you know these guys. At a nearby college, Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), Beth (Kiersey Clemons), and Nora (Beanie Feldstein) are entering as freshmen and pledging the Phi Lamda sorority. However, Shelby is unnerved after being told by the chapter President (Selena Gomez) that sororities are not allowed to throw parties. They attend a frat party and see the rampant misogyny and decide to start a sorority of their own- a sorority that can party like they want.

Thus, Kappa Nu is born. However, they don't have any money. Enter Teddy Sanders. The Delta Psi President-turned-Abercrombie model is entering a major identity crisis, having realized that everyone around him is now successful and he's still stuck. Pete is getting married to his boyfriend, Garf (Jerrod Carmichael) is a cop working with Officer Watkins (Hannibal Burress), and Scoonie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has invented a successful sex app. Meanwhile, Teddy is doing nothing. When he happens to run into the Kappa Nu girls at the old frat house, Teddy decides to help them out. Kappa Nu moves in next door, and they Radners immediately realize they have a problem on their hands. Once again, the family launches into an all-out war against the rowdy sorority.

A large segment of the critic community has embraced Neighbors 2 as "one of the best comedy sequels of all time" and an improvement on the original, but I don't think either of those things are even close to being true. Neighbors was a remarkably compact and efficient comedy, a film that flowed beautifully and featured some dazzling visual filmmaking. Sorority Rising is less controlled, embracing a more random structure with significantly less inventiveness. The party scenes feel a bit duller, the conclusion is a tad stale, some gags are recycled (the infamous airbag trick returns for another hilarious go-around), and overall, this sequel doesn't carry quite the same sense that the original did. It is never able to gain a real sense of dramatic momentum, and thus, the film emerges as one of Rogen's weaker films in a long stretch of brilliance.

Thankfully, Sorority Rising makes up for these flaws with a terrific, character-driven script. Written by Andrew Jay Cohen, Brendan O'Brien, Nicholas Stoller, Evan Goldberg, and Rogen himself, Neighbors 2 knows its characters very well. The fact that this sequel feels like a natural, organic, and funny progression for all of these people is what puts it a cut above the rest, making up for the fact that the story is often lacking. Mac and Kelly's continued growth as parents and as old people is funny and sweet, while Teddy's identity crisis makes for one of the funniest aspects of the movie. After Neighbors opened the door for suburban satire and character drama, Neighbors 2 unleashes the floodgates. So many scenes focus around the individual crises of characters, and that really is the secret to the film's success.

Neighbors 2's progressive values have also been lauded by critics, and it's understandable why. Stoller and the writers don't just use the sorority as an excuse to have more parties and insanity next door. There's a genuine exploration of the difference between these collegiate groups, and Neighbors 2 definitely breaks down the inner workings of the Greek system. It's a fun way to add a layer of depth to the film, as the frat sequel surprisingly becomes a female empowerment tale. I think the fact that Shelby, Beth, and Nora are mostly one-dimensional characters harms the bite and impact of the film (their dynamic is fresh and funny, it just never feels totally genuine), but ultimately, the social ambitions of the Neighbors franchise continue to impress me.

Nonetheless, the humor in Sorority Rising comes first, and boy, there are some phenomenal moments in this movie. I may not have always felt that it held together from a narrative perspective, but I was in stitches multiple times. Every actor in this movie is firing on all cylinders, with Zac Efron and Rose Byrne standing out from the pack. Efron has done plenty of R-rated comedies in recent years (with Fox's Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates on the way) and it's been a mixed bag. But when he has the right material, he can work as the secret weapon for a film. Teddy's search for meaning is one of the stand-out parts of Neighbors 2, and Efron sells it with charm and an ironic charisma. But beyond even Efron, this movie is just plain funny, and the writers know the characters so well that most of the humor is produced in a totally natural way that is simply brilliant.

If you're looking for a comedy with a good story and setup, go see The Nice Guys or just watch Neighbors again. But if you seek pure, uncontrollable belly laughs, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising will more than suffice. Certain aspects fall short from the original, but with a strong, smart screenplay that knows its characters very well, this sequel is able to work in just about every way. With the box office returns, odds are that we won't see a Neighbors 3. And part of me realizes that's probably for the best. After all, who can move in next? However, it's clear that Rogen and his counterparts have found something incredibly interesting with this series, and they've been able to use that to create two funny films. Neighbors 2 isn't weighty or important, but in some strange, hysterical way, it's a reflection of modern suburbia and adulthood in the guise of a raunchy comedy. Who would have expected that from a comedy sequel?

THE FINAL GRADE:  B                                              (7.3/10)

Image Credits: Yahoo, NY Times, Forbes, Coming Soon. Joblo

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