If there’s an image that sums up the central thrust of Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, it’s a shirtless, buff Teddy (Zac Efron) sitting on a lawn chair, his face wet with tears, giving the camera the saddest Bambi gaze as he confronts the reality of his own worthlessness. Asked if he’d like to help his former rivals Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) combat the loud sorority that’s moved in next door to them, Teddy’s face suddenly lights up. “Would that be ... of value to you?” he asks, plaintively. With that, Neighbors 2 confirms that its comedy lies in the crisis of the prototypical hot dude—one whose significance, shockingly, isn’t automatically taken for granted.
If the first Neighbors (released in 2014) was about Mac and Kelly’s overblown worrying about getting old and irrelevant after the birth of their first child, this sequel is about Teddy’s deeper, more hysterical fear: the death of traditional masculinity itself. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is a wonderfully goofy sequel, light on plot and heavy on silly set pieces, but it’s anchored by a sense of self-awareness that bro comedies often lack, poking fun at the insecurities of the millennial male without ever coming off as forced or preachy.
Picking up two years after the first film’s battle between the homeowners Mac and Kelly and the hard-partying fraternity next door, Neighbors 2 finds Teddy at a crossroads in life. His roommate and best friend Pete (Dave Franco) is getting married to his boyfriend (John Early), in a rare and heartening subplot for a broad Hollywood comedy that contains exactly no “gay panic” jokes or crass asides to the audience. Teddy lost his job as a shirtless model at Abercrombie & Fitch, a casualty of evolved thinking on the matter, and he’s wandering through life in search of meaning.
He finds it in the form of the new student Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), who’s starting her own sorority at his old frat house in opposition to the strictures of Greek life on campus. All Shelby and her friends want to do is party in their own space and on their own terms (sororities aren’t traditionally allowed to throw parties—only frats can), and in attempting to do so next door to Mac and Kelly, now trying to sell their place, she provokes their wrath.
Like the first Neighbors, there are no real villains here: Everybody has a right to be annoyed, and the ensuing shenanigans are mostly harmless fun. But there’s an interesting, subtle rejection of the first film’s dynamics at work. An early scene where Shelby and her friends attend a frat party and are confronted with the medley of disgusting, girl-thirsty fools who populated Neighbors works as a clever little reversal. Later, when they tell Teddy that every soiree his frat threw was along the lines of “bros and hoes,” the film takes much pleasure in showing Teddy’s dim, handsome face puzzling that point out.
If Neighbors’s standout performance was the wonderfully cranky Byrne (whose character railed against the idea that she had tap out of the film’s antic warfare just because she was a new mother), Efron is the star of Neighbors 2. The director Nicholas Stoller and his five credited screenwriters (including himself, Rogen and Roger’s writing partner Evan Goldberg) tap into the tragic hilarity of the dumb, attractive marquee idol. All Teddy thinks he has to offer are his perfect abs, and he eventually turns on Shelby’s sorority when they dismiss him for being too old and level-headed. Efron plays Teddy like a Greek statue come to life and wanders the planet in search of friendship—he has no romantic subplot, no desire for money and power. He’s just afraid of becoming irrelevant while everyone else grows up around him.
Efron is buoyed by the film’s impressively deep cast. His old frat buddies played by Jerrod Carmichael and Christopher Mintz-Plasse return, as does the neighborhood cop played by Hannibal Burress, Mac and Kelly’s whacked-out couple friends Jimmy and Paula (Ike Barinholtz and Carla Gallo), and Lisa Kudrow’s frustrating college dean. The film also manages to find ample screentime for Moretz and her sorority sidekicks to cut loose, especially the demented Beanie Feldstein (sister to Rogen’s former sidekick Jonah Hill) and the laid-back Kiersey Clemons (wonderful in last year’s more serious coming-of-age comedy Dope).
In Neighbors 2, Rogen and Byrne return as the lovable lived-in couple Mac and Kelly, getting ready for a second child and worrying that they’ve screwed up their first (now an adorable toddler) are less worried about growing up this time. Their war with Shelby’s sorority is a little more half-hearted, and the film’s set pieces don’t devolve into the brutally hilarious violence of the first film. But that works to Neighbors 2’s advantage: It’s easy to enjoy the madcap antics when you’re rooting for all sides at once. The stakes are low, the jokes are mostly simple and gross, but the film as a whole is so surprisingly clever that it doesn’t matter.