Five Guys Do Feminism: Good Intentions Vs. Commercial Realities In ‘Neighbors 2’

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).

Even better than Zac Efron’s mea culpa (and by extension, an entire generation’s), is the way it’s framed around the impending birth of Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne’s characters’ second daughter. This is a nice way of showing us that this movie isn’t five guys telling us what ladies want, it’s merely five guys struggling with the question of what kind of world they want to raise daughters in.

They actually care! Yes I’m aware I’m guilty of the soft bigotry of low expectations, but I cannot stress enough how important the mere act of giving a shit and trying to write a real story is in the context of a movie called “Neighbors 2.”

Thing is, caring about a comedy sequel can’t make it not a comedy sequel. It was likely pushed out on a tight schedule — releasing exactly two years after the original — and it feels sloppy and rushed. Shelby and her girls have a nice “I wish” scene (shout out to This American Life for teaching me what that is), where they wish they could start a sorority and throw parties on their terms. But the script sort of yadda yaddas the details of how they would go about doing this (“maybe they should… uh… *bong rip* sell some weed or something *cough, cough*”). In general, the film introduces big ideas only to resort to convoluted montages, throws in gross-gags when it runs out of jokes, and bends over backwards trying to find an excuse to redo bits that weren’t that funny in the first movie. The airbag? Again? F*ck.

Why do comedy sequels keep doing this? I could understand wanting to revisit characters, but not specific jokes. You know how they say comedy is all about timing? Yeah. And in this case, the callback is not only ill-advised but just crammed in with no lube. Efron and Rogen are trapped in a garage, and their solution to getting out is to… take out the car’s airbag? While the car’s locked? With no tools? In a few minutes? And where did the second airbag come from? Come on, man, I shouldn’t have to think this hard for a bit this mediocre. And anyway, the new slapstick bit they came up with for the sequel was much better (as is almost always the case in comedy sequels).

Also, because this is a Seth Rogen movie, someone has to be messed up on drugs at one point, which takes the form of Rogen’s buddy played by Ike Barinholtz (“Unnecessary Character,” I believe his name was, who is married to Mrs. Unnecessary Character, played by Carla Gallo) getting roofied at the sorority party. “We got Cosby’d!” shouts Rogen. But wait. How did girls get roofied at their own party, when they’d only just begun letting people in? “Cosby” as a verb is okay, I guess, but it’s not good enough to excuse an entire sequence that makes no sense in the midst of a Rogen writing tic.

Basically, how much you like Neighbors 2 depends on how much leeway you give it for having its heart in the right place, even when its brain is slightly addled and the entire gesture shrinkwrapped in limitations of the format.

In a way, mainstream Hollywood releases are still a lot like the Greek system parties. Ladies throwing one on their own terms would be nice, but in the absence of that, Seth Rogen and company are feeling the weight of their responsibility to plan one where women at least get to do more than dress slutty and f*ck dudes. And even if a lot of the decor wasn’t on point and the punch kind of sucked, they did accomplish that.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.