Considering it’s another trouble-in-suburbia comedy of modest proportions, boasting no innovations in form or technique, it may seem odd to say that “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” couldn’t — or at least wouldn’t — have been made a mere decade ago. Yet a distinctly current engagement with identity politics colors and complicates Nicholas Stoller’s rampantly rude, rowdy sequel to 2014’s squares-vs.-students farce: With sly sorority girls having replaced lunkheaded fratboys as the collective nemesis of Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne’s harried, hip-no-more homeowners, the film has a knowingly conflicted engagement with millennial-generation feminism that freshens its outlook even as it unevenly rejigs many of its predecessor’s gags. Still, while a subtly clawed Chloë Grace Moretz proves a worthy new foil, it’s Zac Efron’s tragicomic anatomy of a dudebro that remains this series’ sharpest asset.
Though its ribald antics (not to mention Efron’s copious and formidable shirtlessness) drew a sizable younger demographic, the original “Neighbors” was fundamentally a film steeped in thirtysomething ennui: Its warmest, wiliest comedy captured the deflating self-recognition of those comfortably too young for middle age, yet emphatically too old to be down with the kids. That sneaky sense of generational limbo also sits at the heart of this slightly less-cuddly sequel, though its hapless victim has changed. While middle-class marrieds Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Byrne) have settled contentedly into early parenthood, former college fraternity leader Teddy (Efron) is struggling to find his place in the world — even his low-ambition retail job at Abercrombie & Fitch has turned on him, demanding that the still-ripped underachiever now wear a shirt to work. What else can Teddy offer the world, if not his abs?
More mortifyingly still, Teddy’s former Delta Psi brothers all appear to have grown up faster than he has. With his best friend and roommate Pete (Dave Franco) newly engaged to be married — to another ex-fratboy, in a socially progressive twist the film happily handles in wholly snicker-free fashion — Teddy finds himself lacking not just a raison d’être, but a roof over his head. Unlikely sanctuary emerges at the very site of his glory days, now home to Kappa Nu, a fledgling “house of united women” founded by snarky, weed-smoking outlier Shelby (Moretz) as an alternative to the no-drugs/no-gluten/no-fun doctrine enforced by a cameoing Selena Gomez’s prissy sorority leader. Outraged by the sexist double standards of typical college-dorm culture, Shelby enlists Teddy’s hedonistic expertise to help prove that sorority girls can party just as hard as fratboys, and on their own terms.
Kappa Nu’s feminist rebellion may hew closer to the “Spring Breakers” playbook than to the suffragette one, though the women do succeed in making Teddy reassess the “bros before hoes” code. (The term “hoes,” he repeats as if imparting revelatory wisdom, is “not cool.”) Notionally empowering as Kappu Nu’s remix of Cyndi Lauper’s “girls just wanna have fun” directive may be, it’s very bad news indeed for on-the-move neighbors Mac and Kelly, whose plans to swiftly sell their house are scuppered by the raucous activity next door. The setup may be different from the first film, then, but the upshot is the same, as much of the running time is given over to a prankish war of wills between young adults and their elders — who find that smart sorority girls make far feistier enemies than jocks of Teddy’s ilk.
The film’s cheerfully scattershot script (by returning “Neighbors” scribes Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien, with added input this time from Rogen, Stoller and Evan Goldberg) is most interesting in the ambivalence of its sympathies. Shelby’s sisterhood validly calls out mainstream society’s sanitized female ideals, yet also exploits social justice to coldly antisocial effect; Mac and Kelly, meanwhile, have their share of liberal blind spots, exposed in a handful of blunt, deliberately grimace-inducing gags that skate the boundaries of racism and anti-Semitism. Some viewers will chuckle sheepishly as Orthodox Jews are blithely burlesqued, while others may take a stonier stance. In a film that finds its own characters debating the limits and applications of political correctness — “There’s no such thing as reverse sexism, Mr. White Man,” a woman tells Mac — a degree of contentiousness seems intended.
That no one has an entirely solid leg to stand on in this particular dispute is what keeps the narrative salty, even as it wobbles in the midsection with a couple of strained high-farce set pieces. A labored series of text-message miscommunications builds to a rather muted punchline, while a frenetically paced marijuana heist (extending Rogen’s ongoing commitment to pro-cannabis comedy) is more breathless than hilarious — notwithstanding the sight of Rogen’s quivering belly painted with the Sharpie-thick stomach muscles of a Ninja Turtle.
“Neighbors 2” is often funniest in its incidental observations of social embarrassment and ineptitude: The delightful Rose Byrne, now an established secret weapon in studio comedy, scores the film’s purest laugh with a botched bribery of college dean Lisa Kudrow (granted just one scene — always a dozen too few where Kudrow is concerned) more exquisitely excruciating than most of its more elaborate gross-out gambits. (Not that an introductory scene of mid-coital morning sickness will be easily wiped from the brain.) Despite its high-concept absurdity, “Neighbors 2” remains a character comedy at heart, scrutinizing its characters’ pile-up of errors with empathy if not total forgiveness.
So it’s a neat trick that its most vacant figure has somehow become its most touching: Efron, a gifted comic performer who has learned to wield his unblemished physical beauty as a kind of punchline, plays dumb with deadpan elegance (“There’s no ‘I’ in sorority,” he enthuses, with perfect conviction), but also a hint of echoing desperation. Perhaps, after all its provocative muddling of identity politics, this messy but lively sequel does come down on the side of the handsome straight white male — but if so, it’s a pity vote at best.