Sunday, 22 May 2016
“NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING” IS ALMOST A TRENCHANT CRITIQUE OF GREEK LIFE
ittle bit of self-awareness goes a long way in elevating “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” well above the 2014 original. Unlike its predecessor, which took for granted (and took as a source of amusement) the sexist presumptions of frat boys, the new film is sparked by the rejection of that sexism by three young women in college—Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz), Beth (Kiersey Clemons), and Nora (Beanie Feldstein)—who shun the leering premise of frat parties and the accommodating ways of extant sororities. They decide to found their own sorority, Kappa Nu, which breaks with the constraining norms of Greek life.
Along the way, “Neighbors 2” exposes to comic light a wide range of prejudices—not just college men’s self-stoking sexism but also their homophobia; the judgmental ways of self-selecting sorority socialites; racial discrimination by the police, and the threat and fear of police violence on racial grounds; and even ongoing job discrimination against those with criminal records.
What makes the movie an improvement on its antecedent isn’t the virtuousness of its characters and the right attitudes that it espouses but the apparent engagement of the filmmakers—the director, Nicholas Stoller, and a host of screenwriters, some credited, some not—with the specifics, the ideas, and the implications of the milieu of which they make comic hay. (The first “Neighbors” looks uncritically at frat life because it doesn’t really look at it at all.) For instance, the crucial point of distinction between Kappa Nu and other sororities is that its founders repudiate the longstanding—and enforced—tradition that prevents sororities from holding parties of their own and makes young women dependent upon fraternities for their night life. (This is a real thing.)
The trio of women find an available house off campus and rent it—landing them, of course, next door to Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne), the youngish married couple whose domestic tranquility had been so grievously shattered by a frat next door, headed by Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), in the first “Neighbors” film. The new movie has a long setup—actually a triple-stranded one—and, strangely, this extended exposition is the best thing in the film. The Radners are now parents to the two-year-old Stella and have another baby on the way, so they’re selling the house and buying another, larger one. But the purchasers’ money is held in escrow for thirty days during inspection, so the Radners have a special incentive, beside their own craving for sleep, to coax the newly installed sorority into sepulchral silence. (The real-estate scenes, featuring Liz Cackowski and Billy Eichner as brokers, add pugnacious humor to stressful situations.)
The collegiate travails of the three young women, loners and outsiders and free spirits who band together when cast out by the wider sorority set of would-be queen bees, have a loose and vigorous intimacy. There is a great scene of a late-night bull session in which they talk about their sex lives and have their good time interrupted by an R.A. (Kyle Mooney) whose brusque semblance of good humor is oppressive and intrusive. The frat boys of the first installment (including Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Dave Franco) are back as well, and their reunion poker night, at which Teddy joins them, adds a touch of real pathos to their loose riffing (which makes for some of the movie’s funniest moments). As it turns out, Teddy—whose misadventures in the first “Neighbors” resulted in his arrest—now has a criminal record, making it tough for him to get a job. He also—in a plot twist I’d rather not spoil—finds himself suddenly homeless, and ends up living in the new sorority house while helping the young women to organize—and to party. (This turn of events is reminiscent of Jerry Lewis’s “The Ladies Man,” but the director, Nicholas Stoller, doesn’t do enough with it.)
Unfortunately, midway through “Neighbors 2,” Stoller and the screenwriters force the comedy of observation and riff into the “Neighbors” template of the quiet-craving Radners taking large-scale action against the sorority, whose members then declare all-out war on the house next door. It’s only when those coils of plot are unleashed that the movie loses its bearings. The trouble isn’t only with the mechanism but also with the way that Stoller deploys it. It’s slightly depressing to observe the downward trajectory of Stoller’s artistry. He started his career on a high—“Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” which joins Jason Segel’s art of humiliation to the frustrations of Hollywood life. “Get Him to the Greek” and “The Five-Year Engagement” were similarly accomplished and multifarious, but, with the two “Neighbors” films, his work went quickly downhill.
In “Neighbors,” as in “Neighbors 2,” Stoller allows situations to get out of hand; in movies that are constructed as slight comic exaggerations of ordinary practicalities, he stages big and noisy comic set pieces that are as grotesquely implausible as they are unsupported by the practical activities on which they’d depend. There’s nothing wrong with the absurd, the surreal, the purely symbolic, or the ridiculous—but Stoller, here as in his earlier films, displays a fine-grained temperament for near-realistic farces of character, not the metaphysical or philosophical energy that powers hyperbolically absurd comic leaps (à la Jerry Lewis or Jared Hess).
It isn’t giving away too much (since it’s foreseeable from the start) to say that, after the comic catastrophes of neighborly battle, peace is restored and, above all, the young women achieve their goal of a fairer, freer, yet more fun sorority. The movie ends with exactly the sort of heartwarming jubilation that it promises. Nonetheless, there’s an odd ambiguity in this ending that radiates its influence and import back throughout the film. In rightly repudiating men’s sexual objectification of women, and women’s uncomplaining endurance of it in the interest of social acceptance, “Neighbors 2” envisions a segregation of the sexes that, while aimed at breaking the unquestioned cycle of a sexualized social life, also pushes aside the very question of heterosexual relationships—and it pushes aside sex itself.
Here’s an example. Early in the film, during the long nocturnal soul-searching in a dorm room, the three women talk about their sexual experiences, and Shelby confesses to Beth and Nora that she’s still a virgin. Not long thereafter, the three women launch Kappa Nu, and one of their first activities at their sorority house is a party at which (as one reveller’s hand-held poster proclaims) Shelby will lose her virginity. With whom she does so, under what circumstances, to what consequence, is never even hinted at. The entire scene passes in a blink, and it shows nothing more explicit or salacious—or risky or significant—than the poster itself. There’s no upstairs, no afterwards, and no man (or, for that matter, no woman), no hint of the experience, whether it meant anything to Shelby (or, for that matter, if it meant nothing to her).
The decision to sweep the subplot under the rug feels like the anticipation of a focus group, the commercial calculation that it’s best to sidestep any hint of an actual sexual relationship for fear of a misstep. For all its verbal ribaldry, “Neighbors 2” veers toward a near-puritanical wholesomeness. Maybe this, too, is a result of Stoller’s direction—of the fact that the movie was directed by a man. Though Stoller alertly moves “Neighbors 2” into original situations, he shies away from their implications. The sound and fury of his comedic dénouement is all the more regrettable a distraction. I’d like to think that a woman director wouldn’t have been as likely to bland out its three independent-minded young women next door but would give them even more of a voice, more character.