Remember back in 2014 when Neighbors became a surprise smash hit and grossed over $270 million worldwide? Going into that movie, viewers expected a formulaic studio comedy, but instead found Seth Rogen subverting his own bro-centric brand by mocking male fragility and arrested development-plagued man-children through the lens of college fraternities. Neighbors also packed in clever commentary on the anxieties of new parenthood, marking a maturation in the Rogen-Evan Goldberg oeuvre (Superbad, Pineapple Express). They managed to mine new thematic depths—even in a film where Zac Efron and his buddies make scale molds of their dicks to be used as dildos for college co-eds.
But even with its stealthy sophistication in subverting masculinity—and the presence of some of our finest comedic performers in Rose Byrne, Lisa Kudrow, and Carla Gallo—Neighbors flunked the Bechdel Test. Even with these women on board, the men ultimately dominated the narrative. Which was a real misfire. How can you properly lampoon both the silliness and toxicity of hyper-masculinity if it’s strictly done through the male gaze? You can’t, and while Neighbors is one of the funniest comedies in years, it falls a tad short of its true potential.
If Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising was written to compensate for the failings of the first film’s feminist perspective, then it has to be the most efficient mea culpa in comedy history. Swapping out the “boys will be boys” entitlement of the Evil Frat Next Door for the righteous indignation of sorority sisters stifled by the sexist double standards of Greek life and society, this is the rare comedy sequel that is not only infinitely funnier than its predecessor, but far more progressive without ever feeling patronizing or pandering. Sorority Rising puts the patriarchy, respectability politics, rape culture, and even the MRA movement in its comedic crosshairs, satirizing and ultimately cauterizing the oppressive structures and micro-aggressions women face on the day to day.
In Sorority Rising (and IRL), you’ve got to fight for your right to party…but only if you’re a young woman who’s pledged allegiance to the unbreakable bond of Greek sisterhood. That’s right: On college campuses across the country, sororities are denied the basic privilege of partying afforded to their frat friends and are forbidden to host functions or even drink alcohol in their own houses.
While fraternities bask in the glory of throwing the biggest ragers on campus, if a sorority wants to throw even a tame cocktail party, they have to co-host said event with a frat or enlist the involvement of a third party, as governed by the National Panhellenic Conference. It’s a dangerous, lopsided bureaucracy that further infantilizes grown women, inhibits their freedom of choice, and once again puts men in charge of dictating their access, and ultimately their safety.
When 18-year-old freshman Shelby (Complex cover girl Chloë Grace Moretz) receives word of this “no partying allowed” mandate, she’s flabbergasted. You mean an independent young lady can’t enjoy a beer or a blunt on her own accord while the frat boys consume and conquer at will? That sets off the events that thrust Sorority Rising into delightfully welcome comedic territories, as Mac and Kelly Radner (Rogen and Byrne) once again find themselves haunted by the Greek life next door.
Shelby and her friends (played by Kiersey Clemons and Beanie Feldstein) realize they need their own place off-campus, and lo and behold, they find a vacant one once occupied by Delta Psi—much to Mac and Kelly’s chagrin. The girls begin building their sorority from the ground floor. What ensues is a feminist twist on what audiences are used to seeing in traditional college party movie: Instead of the “super rapey” frat parties the three girls never felt comfortable attending, they throw a “Feminist Icon Party” where the girls dress up as First Lady Hillary Clinton, Senator Hillary Clinton, and even Future President Hillary Clinton; then there’s a Fault in Our Stars party, where the girls literally just bawl together as they watch the Y.A. classic. To top it off, there’s even a celebratory bash for when Shelby loses her virginity, in which her sisters dance the Hora complete with a Hava Nagila chair lift—a sex-positive departure from the “ho”-themed festivities thrown by the frat in Neighbors.
When the old people next door try to suppress the girls’ fun, conflict ensues. In Shelby and her sisters’ eyes, Mac is just another man trying to tell them what they can and can’t do. There are some huge, sidesplitting visual gags that take place during the ensuing prank war, but the little moments are where Neighbors 2’s heart and sharp commentary shine brightest.
For example: When Efron’s Teddy volunteers to help the sorority vanquish Mac and Kelly once and for all, the girls’ maternal instincts kick in. They allow this lost man-boy with no place in the world to participate in their youthful shenanigans. Shelby and co. quickly dispose of him, however, after it becomes clear that he too perpetuates his own gender expectations (who knew a conversation about the comedic merits of bloody tampons versus a bag of dicks could be this insightful?), causing Teddy to defect and join forces with the old people. Male tears.
The filmmakers don’t shy away from mocking the incredibly tone-deaf defenses men employ to uphold their manhood, to embarrassing results. In a meeting with the dean of the university, Mac tries to play a “reverse sexism” card after feeling victimized by the sorority’s prank offensive. She abruptly shuts him up though, laughing while saying, “Yeah, OK, white man.” There are even some incredibly perceptive jokes at the expense of the novice “woke” archetype. An evolved Teddy finds himself reprimanding his frat brother Pete (Dave Franco) for repeating his “Bros before Hos!” mantra. “Hey. Don’t call them hos," Teddy informs him, matter-of-factly. "It’s not cool anymore.”
But Sorority Rising isn’t just about patting dudes on the back for meeting the minimal requirements of human decency towards women. This movie celebrates its female characters, diving deep into funny but always nuanced conversations about the multitude of their desires, the beautiful complexity of their humanity, and how there isn’t just one right way to be a feminist. The final message of the movie eschews the respectability politics foisted upon female protagonists (and women in the real world) in sadly too many movies as the girls realize that sisterhood isn’t defined by an institution. Shelby and her sorority—proud outcasts and weirdoes—still welcome the traditional sorority girls who “like to dress normal and pretty.” No slut shaming, no division. It’s girl power, through and through.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is one of the most uproarious comedies you’ll see this year. And with its uplifting, diverse representation of women on screen, as well as its scathing jabs at the pervasive sexism that affects women of all ages, it’s also one of the smartest. In a persecution culture where high-profile comedians complain that they’re under attack by the PC police (I’m looking at you, Jerry Seinfeld and Tina Fey), it’s encouraging to know that there are artists like Seth Rogen who are actually listening to the critiques levied at their art, and evolving with the times.
Let’s hope this trend continues to swing upward.