When a concerned dad visits his college-age daughter in “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” and finds a female party den to rival any beer-soaked lair in “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” he asks the logical question: “So you get to be as dumb as the boys now?” Yep, pretty much.
Title IX has finally hit the college party movie genre and the result is just as goofily funny and mind-bendingly stupid as its testosterone-driven predecessors.
“Neighbors 2” has too many characters, and some dopey set pieces that seem to have been contrived on the back of a box of rolling papers. But it also manages something tricky and laudable. Embedded among the bong hits and gross-out gags is a witty reframing of some very contemporary cultural conundrums and an unexpected poignancy, most notably in Zac Efron’s vulnerable performance as Teddy Sanders, a reluctantly evolving dudebro.
Directed by Nicholas Stoller, with a bit less narrative discipline than he showed on the snappier 2014 original, “Neighbors 2” picks up with Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne’s young parents, Mac and Kelly Radner, as their home has just gone into escrow and their second baby is on the way. With 30 days to close, Chloë Grace Moretz’s hard-partying sorority moves into the ramshackle house next door, threatening Mac and Kelly’s sale and reigniting the intergenerational warfare the couple waged against Teddy’s fraternity in the original.
Moretz’s sharp-eyed sorority president, Shelby, is a mostly worthy adversary, smart enough to question the gender bias of the college Greek system, young and naive enough to want to replicate the guys’ reckless hedonism. None of her wing women are terribly well fleshed out, but a rambunctious Beanie Feldstein, the little sister of actor Jonah Hill, and a game Kiersey Clemons, are awfully fun to be around.
“Neighbors 2” has so many characters to define -- in addition to introducing the young women of Kappa Nu, it memorably revisits the supporting frat brothers from the original, played by Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jerrod Carmichael. Perhaps that why it’s hard to form much attachment to Moretz and her crew; they’re never on screen for long.
The movie also suffers for arriving after an era of groundbreaking, girls-just-wanna-have fun TV and movies, like “Broad City,” “Trainwreck” and “Bridesmaids,” which give their female characters more time and more layers. Unlike its thematic sisters, this movie has five male writers -- Stoller, Rogen, Rogen’s producing partner Evan Goldberg, and the duo who wrote the original, Andrew Jay Cohen and Brendan O’Brien.
The good news is, these guys appear to have at least a passing familiarity with actual, human young women -- when the girls of Kappa Nu dance, they leave their high heels piled in the corner; when they go to their first frat party, they skip out early because of the “rapey” vibe.
Byrne, whose role as Rogen’s co-conspirator remains a welcome departure from the wife-as-nag trope, is just as funny and subtle as ever. Her futile attempt to bribe college dean Lisa Kudrow in one scene is a study in comedic timing. Rogen amiably revisits his doubt-plagued young dad character, but delivers some of the movie’s funniest moments when he’s grappling with a man’s place in a changing world. When the sorority girls swarm his car and Byrne turns the garden hose on them, Rogen screams, with palpable discomfort, “You’re only making them sexier!” When his misguided friend, played by Ike Barinholtz, attempts a “men’s rights” fist bump, he shudders in disgust.
Shot by Rogen regular Brandon Trost, “Neighbors 2" has more visual style than you might expect of a character-driven comedy, especially in a tailgate party heist sequence that sees Efron delivering a “Magic Mike”-esque dance performance as a means of distraction.
But when it’s at its best is when the movie shows the beating heart underneath Efron’s glistening pecs. Like any number of gifted actresses -- Cameron Diaz and Goldie Hawn come to mind -- Efron wields his beautiful body as a comedic instrument. He knows its power, and yet yearns to be valued in a deeper way. It’s a market the ladies have cornered for too long.
‘Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising’
MPAA Rating: Rated R for crude sexual content including brief graphic nudity, language throughout, drug use and teen partying.
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes
Playing: In wide release