NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING

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NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING  * 1 / 2

Starring Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron, Chloe Grace Moretz and Dave Franco. Screenplay by Andrew Jay Cohen, Brendan O’Brien, Nicholas Stoller, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen. Directed by Nicholas Stoller.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is an objectively terrible movie that fails on every measurable level of craft. The cinematography is a smudgy, underlit blur. The slapdash editing hacks off some scenes mid-sentence while others are allowed to drift away into long, uncomfortable silences. The screenplay (astonishingly credited to no less than five writers) feels half-finished at best, repeating itself ad infinitum while offering premises instead of jokes, staggering leaps of illogic, and the majority of character interactions disintegrate into shouty improvisations. More than once I was aghast that such a talented creative team considered this film to be in releasable condition. Even the sound is bad.

So what’s the big deal about another shitty comedy sequel? These things are almost always awful (you can count the good comedy sequels on one hand with a couple fingers left over) and the haste with which Neighbors 2 was rushed into release a scant two years after the original’s surprise blockbuster success hardly inspired confidence. Much as I enjoyed that first picture, this is the kind of quickie cash-in that normally wouldn’t even merit a mention.

But then came the first wave of reviews, accompanied by a level of online discourse surrounding the film that struck this writer as batshit insane. I generally try to stay away from writing inside baseball stuff because perhaps the only thing the public cares about less than movie criticism is in-fighting amongst movie critics. But if I may plead your indulgence allow me to explain that for about a week there Neighbors 2 was celebrated amongst more hysterical types as a groundbreaking achievement destined to overthrow the patriarchy and bring liberty and social justice for all. Writers who addressed the movie’s massive aesthetic shortcomings were dismissed on social media as “middle-aged white guys” threatened by the film’s progressive politics.

Speaking as a middle-aged white guy who fancies himself a progressive, I’m not so sure this film’s politics are coherent enough to threaten anybody at all. But it does certainly seem to mean well, which I guess is fine if we’re handing out participation trophies in a kindergarten. Like most sequels, Neighbors 2 hits the reset button on any character growth from the first picture and duplicates the original scenario with a slight variation. In the 2014 film, new parents Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne were bedeviled by Zac Efron and his raucous, hard-partying frat-house next door. This time it’s a sorority house. Efron’s still hanging around, too.

Kappa Nu is founded by incoming freshman Chloe Grace Moretz to provide co-eds with a safe space away from all those creepy, rapey frat parties. Her character is either a scheming, foul-mouthed pothead or terrified baby virgin depending on the requirements of a given scene, and you can’t honestly blame Moretz for her shrill, floundering performance because she obviously wasn’t directed and got left hung out to dry.

The movie weirdly, prudishly equates feminism with sexlessness, constantly casting aspersions on the school’s “hoes” and sidelining a happy, horny pal played by Dope‘s Kiersey Clemons. (Pretty sure she got more screen time in the trailer than in the final film, bad optics for the one black woman in your supposedly “progressive” movie.) Kappa Nu’s wild parties consist mostly of binge-watching sappy chick-flicks, dressing up like Hillary Clinton and other approximations of female behavior one might expect from a movie written by five dudes.

With another baby on the way, Rogen and Byrne have sold their house and are waiting out a thirty-day escrow period, fretting that a noisy sorority next door will torpedo their sale. Gone are the first film’s tart, generationally acute observations about aching to stay “cool” while getting older, replaced here by the actors yelling “escrow” over and over as if the very pronunciation of the word was in and of itself hilarious. In what passes for a plot, they eventually team up with Efron’s sad-eyed himbo to steal a trash bag full of weed the ladies of Kappa Nu were selling to pay their rent. There’s also a texting prank that sends Rogen to Australia via some laughable green-screen effects to minuscule comic effect.

The socio-political muddle continues with a sequence in which two cops played by Hannibal Buress and Jerrod Carmichael bust a bunch of local drug dealers. They’re seen kicking down doors, bullying and batting around white perps, only to abruptly turn all gentle and solicitous when the dealers happen to be black. Not really sure what they’re trying to say with that one but it seems to me the gag would’ve drawn blood had it been executed exactly in reverse.

Efron’s Teddy Sanders remains a sublime creation, an unemployed shirtless model adrift in adulthood with nowhere to go now that the party’s over. Bringing a depth of feeling the rest of the movie has no idea what to do with, Efron ends up sleeping in his car after his best bud (Dave Franco) gets engaged and no longer requires a roommate.

That Franco’s character marrying a man evinces not a single gay panic joke and that his fraternity brothers are happy and supportive of a same-sex union is indeed laudable, but would be even moreso if the film didn’t stop in its tracks being inanely pleased with itself about this to the point of gloating. Yes, I agree it’s a good thing that a mainstream comedy aimed at an audience of young men doesn’t make jokes at the expense of its homosexual characters. That’s called common decency. Like Chris Rock says, “What do you want, a cookie?”

Last summer’s marvelous, genuinely progressive Magic Mike XXL presented a positive, evolved re-definition of masculinity in a world more welcoming and inclusive than our own, all while barely breaking a sweat. It was also a gorgeously made, splendidly entertaining motion picture. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is an aesthetic fucking shambles on every front, fanatically overpraised for its strenuous and spotty bits of lip service. The nutso rhetoric around this film reminds me of last decade when my fellow liberals rubber-stamped countless cruddy anti-Bush documentaries (betcha the Cannes jury wishes they could get a do-over on that Fahrenheit 9/11 Palme d’Or) or when evangelical audiences applaud the latest pile of crap from Kevin Sorbo or Kirk Cameron.

Of course it feels good when movies tell you what you want to hear, but that doesn’t necessarily make them good movies. At least not according to this middle-aged white guy.

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