NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING

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Director Nicholas Stoller has enjoyed a prosperous directorial run through his efforts over the past eight years, from his debut with the still-funny Forgetting Sarah Marshall in 2008 to the surprisingly emotional The Five-Year Engagement in 2012.  Even his Sarah Marshall spinoff, 2010’s Get Him to the Greek, contained excellent performances from Jonah Hill & Russell Brand and a script that blended comedy with drama in a way similar films are unable to accomplish.  Having written the screenplay for most of his own films as well (including a number of others that he didn’t direct, such as 2011’s The Muppets), Stoller’s Renaissance Man-esque ability in the world of filmmaking was clearly on point.

In 2014, Stoller branched away from actor/co-writer Jason Segel, who’s involvement in most of Stoller’s prior outings helped contribute to their success, and enlisted screenwriters Andrew J.  Cohen & Brendan O’Brien to give us Neighbors, a hysterical film that again showcased his ability to bring characters to the screen that transcended stereotype and took a story that could have easily gone the route of cliché down a different, interesting direction.  Neighbors revolves around Mac Radner (Seth Rogen), who, along with his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne), are attempting to adjust to life as new parents when a fraternity, Delta Psi Beta, moves in to the house next door, led by college senior Teddy (Zac Efron).  Due to the couple’s desire to raise their baby in as quiet an environment as possible and the heavily-partying Teddy’s wish for a legendary end-of-the-year blowout, the two parties find new and inventive ways to clash with one another and attempt to drive the other away, all while dealing with their own individual dilemmas-Mac & Kelly find parenthood a change for which they may not have been fully prepared, while Teddy must come to the realization that he hasn’t taken the time to plan for his future as his college career is about to conclude.

By adding these levels of gravity, along with fine performances by the film’s leads and a slew of well-timed jokes, Neighbors truly stands out, not only from the genre of college film but as a solid comedy in its own right.  The film also gave Seth Rogen a playground where his now-exhaustive shtick could find a good home and Efron could continue to put space between his High School Musical days and establish himself as a truly fine actor.  While the cast as a whole works well, it is these two who adopt to their onscreen personas with the greatest of ease.

When it was announced that a sequel to Neighbors was in production, with the entire cast and crew from the original returning, I couldn’t help but feel a sensation of excitement and worry.  While I was eager to spend time with these characters again and dive into another war between Greek life and familial bliss, rarely does a sequel to a memorable comedy live up to its predecessor, even if all the pieces from the original are put back into the same places they occupied previously.  If you need a fine example of this, look no further than The Hangover 2.

Luckily, my worries were put to rest once 2016 brought me Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.

Neighbors 2 picks up two years following the events of Neighbors, with Mac & Kelly now awaiting the birth of their second child & simultaneously attempting to sell their home, while Teddy continues to struggle in the time following his collegiate days working in retail as his former fraternity brothers are all enjoying fruitful careers of their own.  Seeking value in an area where he believes his skills could still apply, he decides to help an up-and-coming sorority get off the ground, with a freshman named Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz) at the helm.  With a lonely high school experience behind her and a desire to enjoy college as much as possible, Shelby breaks away from the atmosphere of a traditional sorority by creating Kappa Nu, where girls could get their party on while establishing the bonds of sisterhood Shelby craves so desperately.  The only problem?  The new sorority’s headquarters just so happens to be the former Delta Psi fraternity house, once again placing the action right next door to Mac & Kelly.  With thirty days left before potential buyers are set to move in to the Radner abode, it’s up to the desperate couple to attempt to keep a lid on Kappa Nu’s activities so as to prevent the buyers from backing out of the purchase, while Teddy gets a chance to exact revenge on the Radners by way of his involvement in the fledgling sorority.  Is it possible that Teddy might very well change sides, eventually aligning with said Radners?  Only in a viewing of Neighbors 2 will that timeless question be answered.

While not a negative aspect by any means, this film is absolutely more of the same material that unfolded in its 2014 precursor, while injecting a multitude of fresh gags and characters rich with decent, often emotional backstories audiences may not have seen previously in films of this ilk.  It’s a sequel that matches the tone and quality of the original quite well, at the same time introducing elements that elevate it in many ways above the original to create a fun moviegoing experience.  Seth Rogen is once again provided with a setting where he can play Seth Rogen without it feeling tired, even despite involvement from frequent collaborator/Rogen clone Evan Goldberg, and the character of Teddy brings about a performance from Zac Efron that may be both one of his best onscreen appearances as well as a healthy dose of redemption after this year’s dreadful Dirty Grandpa.  Chloe Grace Moretz continues to establish a fine resume that’s as diverse as it is long, providing Shelby with enough substance that, like Efron, creates a villain with whom one can’t help but sympathize.  However, when she unites with her well-casted sorority sisters, each of whom get their own respective opportunities to shine onscreen, the downright evil persona she projects towards the Radners again echoes Efron and even had me wishing for her comeuppance to arrive as quickly as possible.

Furthermore, the returning supporting cast delivers admirably in this second go-around, with all-too brief appearances by Hannibal Buress’ campus cop and Lisa Kudrow’s college dean.  Even the unknown actor who plays Shelby’s RA towards the beginning of Neighbors 2 gets a brief moment I found hilarious, as does a cameo by Kelsey Grammer as Shelby’s father, which itself is as much funny as it is heart-wrenching.  Ike Barinholtz is back as Mac’s co-worker/friend Jimmy, again given many of the film’s best lines, and Dave Franco returns as Teddy’s fraternity brother/best friend Pete, now out of the closet and happy with the path his life has taken.  Much like Efron, Franco (the brother of James, for those who may not know) possesses an overall magnetic presence that gives his scenes energy-plus, I simply can’t take my eyes off that killer smile.  Dave Franco, you are something else.

Where the film does stagger somewhat is in the repeated complaints about sexism and misogyny, usually stemming from the Kappa Nu camp which, while not at all lost on the audience, does get mentioned more times than may have been needed.  There’s also a prank the sisters play on the Radners I found more disgusting than the entirety of most gross-out comedies I’ve bore witness to over the years.  No, I won’t mention it, and no, you won’t like what it is, either.  A recurring gag that manifests itself all throughout the film involving the Radners’ child and an inappropriate toy does become weary almost immediately as well.

Regardless, these failings hardly distract from the quality of Neighbors 2, and the final scenes even managed to tug at the heartstrings in a major way in a moment that will resonate with any parent of young children.  While not as start-to-finish humorous as the original, it balances this out with excellent writing again from Cohen & O’Brien that benefits the characters and the story in ways that this year's troubled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was unable to achieve at times.  For the accomplishment of being a comedic sequel that not only matches its prequel but surpasses it in many ways, I tip my hat to Neighbors 2, and while I don’t believe a third film is necessary, I’m glad to have spent time with these characters again and look forward to the next projects from all those involved.

Well done.