2014’s Neighbors memorably featured an adorable baby chomping on a discarded condom. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising sets out to up the ante, as quickly and loudly as possible. In its first three minutes alone, it covers amazingly awkward sex, mouth-to-mouth vomiting, stress-pooping, and a toddler who’s claimed mommy’s vibrator as a toy. It’s a shock-value blitzkrieg, and it feels desperate, as if director Nicholas Stoller and his co-writers (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, plus original Neighbors screenwriters Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O'Brien) are out to preemptively scream down anyone who might doubt their commitment to juvenile comedy. This is practically the Platonic ideal of a sequel: a bigger, louder, more manic retread that brings back Neighbors’ characters, cast, conflict, settings, and even specific gags, and scales them all up to even more frantic levels.
But Neighbors 2 also sticks to the principles that made the original film an intriguing anomaly in the comedy-of-extremes genre. With Forgetting Sarah Marshall and its spinoff Get Him To The Greek, Stoller has specialized in a particular form of strident, sloppy, but kind-spirited humor. And in both Neighbors films, he’s taken significant time to explore what his characters want in life, how they’re feeling about it, and how they relate to each other. Both these films have a touching humanism, and a real interest in exploring people’s insecurities and the narratives they create to justify selfish or destructive behavior. Just for balance, though, this one also has a group of teenage girls cheerfully pelting a house with blood-soaked tampons.
Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are back as Mac and Kelly Radner, a congenial but ditzy couple who worry they're losing their hip cred as they grow into parenthood. They also worry that they aren't actually growing into parenthood, and that they're making mistakes with their dildo-addict daughter Stella (played by Elise and Zoey Vargas, the same cute twins from the first movie). When 18-year-old Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her best friends Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein) launch a new sorority in the empty former frat house next door, Mac and Kelly react shrilly enough to justify their concerns over their maturity level. Just as they went to war with frat leaders Teddy (Zac Efron) and Pete (Dave Franco) in the first film, in the sequel they reenlist their friends Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (Carla Gallo) to sabotage Shelby and her sisters. Events escalate quickly.
As with the first Neighbors, Stoller and the other writers take the time to establish both sides of the conflict, and dig into the concerns that make Shelby and her sorority sisters more than faceless foils. The film's clear sympathy for Shelby's crowd and their budding feminist defiance isn't subtle, but it's even-handed and startlingly progressive. As Shelby points out early in the film, the National Panhellenic Conference, which governs sororities, prohibits them from drinking alcohol in their own houses, so only fraternities can throw parties. (This is a real thing: "Google it," Shelby snaps, mostly to the audience.) By starting her own unlicensed, ungoverned sorority, she's trying to dodge the rules, dodge skeevy frat parties, and stand up for women's freedom to get drunk, high, and laid on their own terms.
But there's no such thing as a legal right to party, as Pete wearily explains once Teddy starts coaching the sorority in an attempt to relive his happy frat years. Shelby's cause is petty and self-absorbed, and a more judgmental film would use that to mock the feminism she uses to clothe her actions. Neighbors 2 toys with some dangerous themes by having her and her friends use their youth and sexuality as a weapon, particularly against Mac, who's openly terrified by the skin they flash at him. But the film also accepts Shelby's frustrations as real to her, appropriate to her youth and inexperience, and relevant to real-world sexism. It takes her small ambitions of sisterhood as seriously as it takes anything in its story, even when she expresses those ambitions childishly. The film is broad enough to integrate its female-empowerment message into the overall air of amiable anarchy, instead of turning it into shrill moralizing. (Still, in all the hoopla over Paul Feig's female-led Ghostbusters, where's the frothing, self-righteous outrage over Neighbors 2, which also replaces the men in an popular comedy with ladies, then builds an entire theme around women's equality?)
That broadness doesn't boost every aspect of the film. The lazy story contradicts itself in ways that undermine the plot. One incoherently edited sequence involving Mac and Kelly's phones completely falls apart in execution. Rogen and Byrne are charming, and they make a surprisingly convincing couple in spite of the usual comedy-movie attractive woman / schlubby man disparity. But Rogen's habit of adding unnecessary narration to the jokes can be grating. (A good drinking game for any Seth Rogen comedy: drink every time he points out or explains a gag, e.g., "The baby has your vibrator! She shouldn't have that, it's not appropriate for a small child!") And just as with the first film, the manic Looney Tunes physics are excessive even for this ridiculous world. Three words: more airbag gags.
In the early going at least, Neighbors 2 is fleet and rewarding. Like Bridesmaids before it, the film seems to be working double-time to prove that women can be as comedically repulsive and provocative as men. But it also has its sensitive side, especially when dealing with Teddy. Half of Efron's character is a running physical gag revolving around character reactions to his muscular, frequently shirtless body. The other half becomes a wistful, sympathetic character portrait of a kid who's becoming desperate to find his place in life, as his smarter, more confident friends begin to move on without him. Like everything else in Neighbors 2, Teddy's anxiety and loneliness get played for big laughs, which are undercut by naked, relatable angst, which in turn gives way to more slobs vs. slobs humor. It's surprising that the film has such a sensitive side. It's more surprising that it doesn't slow down the pace, or turn mawkish or hypocritical.
Neighbors 2 is most appealing in its agnosticism about its empathy and its humor. Everyone here has legitimate needs, and none of them are demonized or mocked for them. But there's a logic to its world as well, and a form of rough justice in the way everyone gets equally and outrageously punished for making terrible choices. Comedy is rarely sympathetic to its victims, but by letting all the major characters serve as each other's karma engines, Stoller and the other writers create a hilarious world where everyone can be equally awful, and equally heroic, and equally ridiculous. If there's such a thing as a warm and comforting place to be puked on during sex, this film provides it.