Rarely have good intentions and commercial limitations battled it out so transparently within the same movie as in Neighbors 2. This is a hell of an effort to do something meaningful with an inherently soulless vessel — the studio-mandated comedy sequel, where anything successful gets another chapter, whether it needs one or not. In this case Neighbors, which felt sort of like a marketing plan in search of a story to begin with.
As you may have heard by now, the sequel is a rather overt attempt to create a comedy with a feminist message. The original was a surprise hit, grossing $270 million worldwide on about 35 minutes of material. The sequel grew out of another strong elevator pitch: what if instead of a fraternity moving next door it was a sorority! But then something kind of magical happened. Rogen and his four male co-writers (Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O’Brien, Evan Goldberg, and director Nicholas Stoller) had to try to see the college Greek/party system from a female perspective. And apparently, they didn’t like what they saw.
So in a weird way, it was the crass commercialism of trying to milk a surprise hit that forced the Neighbors team to try to make a feminist movie. Of course, this also raises the question of what a feminist movie is. I always thought that meant a movie where women got to tell a story from their point of view without male tempering or interference. Neighbors 2 is a story written by five dudes. Not that that’s a bad thing, in an environment where toy companies force comic book villains be made male on account of market research, splicing a female empowerment message into a crassly commercial sequel to a half-assed dude comedy, that easily could’ve been 90 more minutes of half-assed dude comedy, is better than nothing (and hey, nothing against dude comedies, I just know Seth Rogen is capable of better than Neighbors). The sequel feels like it’s actually about something in way that the first one wasn’t.
The best thing about Neighbors 2 is that the Rogen bong trust is pretty transparent — about feeling the weight of their responsibility, and also that it came about sort of inadvertently. Their protagonist, prospective sorority girl Shelby, played by Chloë Moretz, finds out that, unlike fraternities, sororities can’t throw parties at their own houses. She learns this from a sorority president played by Selena Gomez (who between this and The Big Short, is fast becoming America’s queen of explaining-sh*t cameos), who finishes her expository spiel with, “It’s true, Google it.”
Which is basically Neighbors 2‘s writers telling us “Can you believe the sh*t we found out when we were researching this?”
Now, the part that’s not in the movie is that while the no-drinking-in-the-house rule is a double standard, it’s not one imposed by men (not directly, anyway). It’s “the 26 member sororities governed by the National Panhellenic Conference” who came up with this rule — i.e. the sororities themselves. It would be an interesting conversation to have whether this sexist rule imposed on women by women is the result of internalized sexism, merely an attempt to avoid victimization by men (no alcohol, no roofying and date rape, so the theory might go), or something else, but… I realize that’s a pretty touchy subject to tackle in a movie written by five dudes (though apparently they did consult Lena Dunham). I don’t blame them, but thus we run into the limitations of the form.
What Neighbors 2 does instead, and pretty brilliantly, is to focus on the result of that rule: girls always having to party on boys’ terms. Following a scene at your typical “dress like sluts and get f*cked up!”-themed frat party, Shelby ends up trying to explain to Zac Efron’s character why she doesn’t like frat parties (ie, because they seem to exist solely to get girls f*cked up enough to bone frat guys). Efron only remembers how much fun everyone was having. “We had great parties!” he says, and then he starts listing off themes: “Pimps and Hoes… CEOS and Corporate Hoes… Boise Boys and Ida-Hoes… Oh God, I see your point!”
Finally, a comedic moment Zac Efron is perfect for: the excited, dopey frat guy realizing what was there all along. The scene is funny, insightful, and, to be honest, probably hits home for a lot of guys in my generation, who never bothered to consider the implications of telling the women in our lives to dress like prostitutes (important sub-point: there’s nothing wrong with being a prostitute, if that’s what you’re into).