I loved “Neighbors” when it burst onto the scene two years ago. I saw it in a room full of college kids at the State Theatre who greeted each joke with raucous laughter. Maybe it was seeing “Neighbors 2” in a barren theater in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, but the film didn’t pack the same comedic punch as the first one. The movie takes a slightly different spin on the first film’s fraternity moving next door, but it only shines when it gives its talented cast something different than the first film.
“Neighbors 2” again follows Mac (Seth Rogen, “The Interview”) and Kelly (Rose Byrne, “Spy”) Radner, who, in this film, are in escrow on their house when a sorority moves in next door and a familiar war begins. The Radners and the sorority trade pranks, as the Radners push to get the sorority out before they mess with the sale of their house while the sorority pushes to party.
There’s a through line to “Neighbors 2” that’s quite smart, and it lies in how the film justifies a sorority moving in next door. Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz, “The 5th Wave”) and her friends create Kappa Nu after finding a frat party disgustingly sexist and learning sororities aren’t allowed to throw parties on their own. Throughout the movie, they point out moments of sexism. For example, when Zac Efron’s (“High School Musical”) character, Teddy, says them throwing used tampons at the Radner’s house as a practical joke is disgusting, they point out the double standard by asking him “What would you say if it were a bag of dicks?” In addition, the climax of the film features a moment in which Teddy and Kelly convince the sorority girls to stand by its principles no matter what happens. I wish the film put a little more emphasis on this aspect because it’s what separated the comedy from “Neighbors.”
However, where “Neighbors” thrived was in its absurd, crass, crude and hysterical comedy, and “Neighbors 2” was able to bring some of that back. Each member of the ensemble — starting at the top with Rogen, Byrne, Efron and Moretz, supporting performances by Ike Barinholtz (“The Mindy Project’), Carla Gallo (“Men of a Certain Age”) and Dave Franco (“Now You See Me”), and going down to cameos by Hannibal Buress (“Why? with Hannibal Buress”), Lisa Kudrow (“Web Therapy”) and Kelsey Grammer (“Partners”) — brings something to the table. There’s an extended sequence that takes place at a football tailgate where the Radners are trying to stop the girls from selling weed and making enough money to keep their house. The sequence brings in a large group of the cast and is visually ambitious, as chase sequences move through crowds and across large distances. It also features Barinholtz dressed up as a clown, which is hysterically terrifying as he frequently pops up out of nowhere.
Though, “Neighbors 2” had laughs, it faltered in its repetitiveness and close ties to the first film. Many of the jokes and situations felt oddly familiar, as the film followed a nearly identical story arc to the first one. There were parties, airbags and foul, gross-out jokes that felt too familiar. While it’s fun to see Rogen and Efron play the characters I enjoyed so much in the first film, the sequel didn’t do quite enough to differentiate the jokes they gave the characters in the first film (though Efron did get some leverage out of his arc, which focused on him failing to move on from college).
That’s really the sticking point behind “Neighbors 2.” If it wasn’t so tied to the first film’s arc, it could have fully embrace how a sorority makes it a different type of comedy and let its ensemble work with a more diverse set of material. Those aspects were the glimmers of hope I clung to in what was an otherwise disappointing movie that relied too strongly on the ideas of the first and without the same level of comedy to back it up.