Hollywood has made some major inroads in aligning feminism with comedy in the last few years. Films like Bridesmaids, Trainwreck, Spy and The Heat haven’t been exactly Pitch Perfect in their representation, but regardless of demonstrating certain sexist or racist stereotypes, the films have navigated a complicated, confusing path to become more progressive.
Since Neighbors came out in 2014, much has changed for women and feminism. Nicholas Stoller and his five-member writing team wisely paid attention to these developments, incorporating explicit references like Hillary Clinton being a role model and the effect of rape culture on campuses in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. Feminism is not so much an undercurrent in the hilarious sequel as it is an explicit takeaway message.
Three young, ambitious freshwomen — Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein) — find sororities to be too girly and frat parties to be too “rapey.” They’re irked by the fact that sororities are prohibited from partying like fraternities (“Google it!” says one character, subtly directed to the audience), and so they start their own — Kappa Nu — moving in next door to the Radners, Mac (Seth Rogen) and a pregnant Kelly (Rose Byrne), just as the couple sell their house to make room for their second child.
Unfortunately, they’re in escrow for 30 days and are afraid the new homeowners will be spooked by the rowdy kids. They try to make good girls out of Shelby, Beth and Nora, but as you might imagine, they fail. Rightly, the girls demand to party like anybody else.
Their champion comes in the form of Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) who can’t seem to move on from frat-life and finds himself suffering from a quarter-life crisis. When the sorority girls vote him out, Teddy switches sides and helps the Radners.
The genuinely empathic struggle and intergenerational play between the college girls, Teddy and the still-trying-to-be-cool parents is well handled. The college girls want to be treated equally and also create their own sisterhood defined by their values, Teddy wants to be appreciated and find his calling, and the Radners are worried they’re bad parents because their baby daughter keeps playing with Kelly’s dildo: these three subplots could have easily become a scattershot of revenge games between the neighbours, but they’re surprisingly effective as the characters tap into each other’s weaknesses.
For all its feelings, Neighbors 2 is genuinely hilarious, and (surprisingly) that’s thanks in large part to Efron: the still-figuring-out-life Teddy is the perfect combination of sadness, cluelessness and demoralization that has him bouncing from purely physical gags (like pouring burning meat grease on his chiseled abs) to more tender moments in which he quietly begs for friendship.