In Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, the sequel to 2014’s old people–vs.–frat brothers comedy, Zac Efron takes off his shirt in nearly every scene he’s in. It’s a sight to behold — again and again and again — but a calculated effort, like most of this film, to appeal to the ladies. As surprising as it seems for an R-rated comedy made by many men, it totally succeeds on that front, and many others.
When they endure a harrowing five minutes inside the carnival of macabre sexist pleasures that is a frat party, college friends Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her new pals Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein) take off to smoke weed in their dorm room and hatch a plan to start their own sorority, Kappa Nu. Meanwhile, the inept/typical parents/adults from Neighbors, Kelly (Rose Byrne) and Mac (Seth Rogen), think they’re in the clear: The frat next door, along with Teddy (Efron) and his brothers, is long gone, and Kelly and Mac have bought a new house, anyway, and sold the old one. Unfortunately, they don’t know what “escrow” means and discover that they have to keep up appearances on their old house for 30 days just when Shelby and the gang’s makeshift sorority opens up next door with one objective: to party on their own terms.
And party they do, but not exactly in the ways you might expect after seeing the Spring Breakers–like trailers. A hilarious montage showcases the sorority sisters’ a capella karaoke soirees, The Fault in Our Stars cryfests and a laugh-out-loud funny “Feminist Hero” costume party, where the power of Oprah is invoked and three people (including Efron's Teddy) dress as Hillary Clinton. Teddy has joined ranks with the sisters after his bro Pete (Dave Franco) gets engaged to his boyfriend and kicks Teddy out. That's right: Pete is gay, and for once, in a studio comedy, queerness is incidental rather than a joke. Like real life.
Shelby's crew proves wickedly endearing. Feldstein’s performance as the adrenaline-powered ball of sunshine and pain pills invites comparisons to Aidy Bryant or a less complainy Jonah Hill, who as it turns out is her real-life older brother. The girls get a stab at physical comedy, too. Pledges dressed as Minions hanging from chandeliers and falling down stairs in the background account for the extra-long roster of female stunt actors in the credits, and a frenetic action sequence that’s more beautifully shot than comedies demand has Shelby chasing Mac through a hard-partying sea of tailgaters to retrieve a garbage bag of weed, so she can sell it and make rent.
With so many women in the cast, the door’s open for new avenues of gross-out humor. A mid-coitus barf from Kelly is followed by a recurring vibrator gag where Kelly and Mac's daughter, now age 2, keeps finding mommy’s bright pink dildo, prompting the couple to just dress it up like a pretty princess and call it good. Byrne, as always, is on point, but the best of these scenes by far is a sorority-sister bloody-tampon carpet bomb that delivers in laughs before delivering in lessons — Teddy tells them bloody tampons are “gross,” but the women convince him that they’re actually funny-gross.
Teddy, of course, learns a lot of lessons in his time at Kappa Nu, the most salient being that frat parties’ themes always make girls play hoes. When he finally grasps this, his face contorts into the pained acknowledgment that he may have been a terrible person, and thus begins Teddy’s journey to maturity — and, later, the realization that he’s an “old” with no friends and no direction. It’s almost impossible that a human could have Efron’s abs and his comic timing, and director Nicholas Stoller definitely makes use of both, even working in a Magic Mike–worthy dance scene.
As a writer and director, Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement) has long been a proponent of funny women and people of color. This film’s no different. Girl Code’s Awkwafina plays a potato-chip munching monotone stoner, Veep’s new breakout star Sam Richardson gives his stilted goody-goody best and Jerrod Carmichael reprises his role as Garf, who’s now joined Hannibal Buress’ cop character on the local police force. Carmichael and Buress get one of the funniest scenes in a funny movie when they bust a bunch of white drug dealers, drawing some comic inspiration from Denzel Washington in Training Day. They wreak havoc, playing tough, until they burst into a room of African-American weed entrepreneurs — whom they proceed to treat with the utmost respect. It’s a timely role reversal, playing on the cordial way in which white mass-shooter Dylann Roof was treated by white cops. Stoller doesn’t shy away from jokes with some edge, even in a mostly innocuous comedy.
There’s so much good to say about Neighbors 2 that it's easy to overlook some flat punchlines, like the lackluster ending to a drawn-out text-messaging prank. Even then, Kelly and Mac’s relationship is #marriagegoals. Meanwhile, the complexity of feminism for young girls today is displayed with rare hilarity and insight. Nobody captures the spirit of it all better, though, than Shelby’s father, played by an always alarmingly perfect Kelsey Grammer: “So what, you get to be just as dumb as the boys are now?” Yes. And it’s all they ever wanted.