In the last 15 years, the Apatow film troupe has become a dominant force in American film comedy. We won’t go a year anymore without one or two films produced by Apatow and starring one of his regulars (Seth Rogen, James Franco,etc.). And it is very understandable that the viewing public has gotten to a point where they feel a bit..annoyed at a perceived repetitiveness in the work being produced. I’ve managed to watch a large number of these films, not due to a strong love of Apatow’s work, but due to that previously mentioned prevalence in our culture, and I’ve come away with some mixed thoughts and feelings about them, Neighbors 2 being a prime example.
Neighbors 2 continues the conflict between Mac and Kelly (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) with Teddy (Zac Efron). This time a sorority moves next door just as Mac and Kelly have gone into escrow on their house in preparation for a new baby. The sorority is led by Shelby (Chloe Moretz) and they all end up in a series of comedic set pieces where characters go over the top and slapstick comedy ensues.
Much of Neighbors 2 is a retread of the first. We just have a new organization, this time made up of young women, who are causing the exact same sorts of problems. Mac and Kelly enlist their friends for help. The couple deal with their own feelings of inadequacy as parents. Thematically they are the least interesting part of the film. From a larger perspective, this is almost a meta-commentary on these actors being pushed aside for the more interesting ideas and themes that come out of what Zac Efron and the sorority members are doing.
Hands down, it is Teddy, Efron’s role, that makes the film worth watching. I wouldn’t say I am a fan of Efron, his choice in films has led us down very different paths. But here he is presenting an examination of the very type of person is likely perceived to be. Early on, we have a scene between Teddy and his former frat brothers from the first film. Everyone is growing up with steady jobs, careers even, and now getting married. Teddy still works at Abercrombie & Fitch and, due to the criminal record he got from the first film’s exploits, has a difficult time finding work beyond customer service. While the film plays this for comedy, Efron manages to bring some levity into these circumstances. Teddy is a dudebro still clinging to his past while everyone around him is moving on. He doesn’t cling to his fraternity days for a sense of glory, we are very quickly shown he wants to be part of a family.
The story of Shelby and her sorority is also set up right away with a ton of empathy. In an orientation meeting for an established sorority on campus, Shelby learns that by-laws make it impossible for women to throw parties so they are forced to attend frat parties. A visit to one leaves Shelby turned off by the exploitative nature of these parties towards women and she ends up finding some strong friendships among fellow female party goers. This is the impetus for their move next door to Mac and Kelly. By the end of the film, I didn’t have much sympathy for Mac and Kelly who, if we look at the generational lines laid by the film, would be the characters I was expected to side with. They are my contemporaries experiencing many of the same life changes I am.
However, Shelby and her friends’ struggle to carve out a piece of the college experience that represents their ideals of female empowerment and to not be viewed as “Hos” for the “Bros” is a much stronger theme. There is a moment in the film where Teddy begins to reminisce about the parties he threw and quickly realizes women were literally labeled “hos” at every single one. His personal realization is played both for laughs and with some poignancy. While he and Shelby are only separated by a handful of years, ideologically and sociologically, they were light years apart. Never once is Shelby’s point of view used to lampoon social justice or feminism, the sorority sisters are funnier than the older characters and evoke a greater sense of empathy.
Neighbors 2 will not change your life. It will likely make you laugh a number of times. What I came away with was a sense of freshness to the Apatow films. Director Nicholas Stoller is responsible for what I believe is the criminally overlooked Forgetting Sarah Marshall, another film that deals in a grown man not blaming women for his problems, but learning to admit his own part in why a relationship crumbled. These films are often marketed with an emphasis on the slapstick, over the top, gross out humor present in them. But given a chance, I think you’ll find something much more thoughtful and refreshing than presented in the marketing.