Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016) by Nicholas Stoller
Alternate take by Andrew Swafford
(Read original review by Zach Dennis here)
Welcome to the first installment of Cinematary's Alternate Takes, in which one of our critics strongly disagrees with the assessment of a film already provided by a Cinematary contributor.
Nicholas Stoller's Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising has been described by critics I know and trust as being actually "about something," "one of the most good-spirited comedies in years," and (by our own Zach Dennis), "socially conscious...hav[ing] the audacity to ask these girls to be something more than their perceived stereotypes." Stephen Colbert even had Seth Rogen on The Tonight Show to pitch the feminist message behind the film, which seems to be attracting audiences mostly on the supposed strength of its politics. (This should cue you into the fact that this review will likely qualify as a "thinkpiece"--so feel free to click away if such things are repulsive to you. I gave a defense of the medium in Episode 89 of the show.)
Full disclosure: I definitely would not have seen Neighbors 2 were it not for all the feminist hoopla surrounding the film's critical response, as I tend to avoid mainstream "adult" comedies (usually anything but adult). The style of humor just doesn't appeal to me--it's an acknowledged bias. Despite my preconceptions about the genre, I bought into the political hype to see if this movie had anything interesting to say about gender politics, but was--in contrast to the critical consensus--sorely disappointed. Not only does Neighbors 2 not develop or connect any of its ideas about gender in the Greek system, but it unfortunately takes many ugly and unwarranted passes at other sensitive social issues as well, lacking any of the tact or nuance needed to make insightful humor out of some of our world's most depressing realities.
As listeners to the show know, I teach 10th grade English in a Tennessee public school, and a huge part of that job involves pushing teenagers to fully develop their ideas in writing. No matter how objectively correct the point of a student essay is (or even how much the grader agrees with it), the rubrics used to score student writing require the point of an essay to be elaborated upon, explained, and defended in great detail to be considered "good" persuasive writing. The writers of Neighbors 2 must have been high during these portions of English class, because this movie is very proud of itself for having essentially one pithy point to make--not letting sororities hold parties, like frats do, is an example of sexism--with absolutely no development of that idea nor its implications. In the moment that this idea is presented in a Selena Gomez cameo, the tone of the film suddenly shifts from raunchy slapstick to after-school-special, just long enough for Gomez to explain the facts of the situation directly to the audience with a quintessentially-milennial "this is a real thing." Then, back to the genitals and weed jokes.
There are, admittedly, a few other moments in which gender disparities are spotlighted: double standards about shame/pride in regards to virginity, double standards about reactions to penises/semen vs. vaginas/menstrual blood, the rape-y vibe of typical frat parties, the difference between male gaze-influenced beauty standards as opposed to what women themselves prefer to wear, etc... BUT (big, crucial "but" here) these ideas are similarly stated and then abandoned, devoid of development any sense of logical connection between the elements that make up a system of institutionalized sexism. Rather than being a dramatic exploration of any/all of these issues, the script of Neighbors 2 feels like a collection of clickbait headlines, all reading something along the lines of "WITH ONE YOUTUBE COMMENT, THIS GIRL TOTALLY OBLITERATES THE PATRIARCHY."
Treatment of gender issues here all feels informed by a very surface-level understanding of contemporary sexism, riding and perhaps exploiting the wave of popularity achieved by feminist listicles found on platforms like Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, and Tumblr. The female characters themselves feel like a stereotyped vision of the readership.users of these sites--naïve, entitled millennial whose interest in feminism is, again, surface-level (the shortlist of their "icons" includes Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton), and pales in comparison to their interest in hitting joints or watching weepies at slumber parties. The fact that these would-be woman warriors aren't drawn with much actual humanity is probably the main factor holding this movie back from exploring its themes dramatically rather than presenting a series of disconnected quips/gags.
There's a certain amount of absurdity to be expected from the characters in a movie belonging to the stoner/sex comedy subgenre, but there seems to be an ironic disparity in how characterization breaks down across gender lines in Neighbors 2. Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, in contrast to Chloë Grace Moretz and her delegated "black friend"/"overweight friend" human simulacra, are given a decent amount of depth and complexity, both in terms of internal personhood and external relationships. Rogen has a grossly endearing relationship with his wife (played, excellently, by Rose Byrne), and both struggle with their confidence as new parents. Efron is a fading prettyboy who is growing estranged from his friends and is at a loss for a place to belong (though he really shouldn't be straight-up saying that throughout the film), ultimately reconciling old wounds with Rogen to find a slightly adorable newfound friendship. The girls, on the other hand, are stereotyped (as aforementioned) as cliché millennials who, for example, don't understand corded phones) and are given almost no attributes to distinguish themselves from one another aside from physical features, and their relationships are never adequately explored, especially for a movie about sisterhood, a.k.a. sorority.
From my perspective, the cheaply-written characters and poorly-developed subtext fails to make an actually thought-provoking point about how rape culture and regressive gender roles are reinforced by the Greek system (a fairly easy point to argue). Rather, it adds up to a lazy gender-swapped cinematic equivalent of the Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)"--an effusively juvenile track that most contemporary frat boys didn't recognize as satire. There's even a Beasties tune in the soundtrack here that gives the film one of its few truly funny moments, but unfortunately, Rogen's shirtless slow-mo chase scene to "Sabotage" is mostly ripped from Spike Jonze's much more hilarious video for the track.
What's worse, ineffective and surface-level messaging isn't the biggest problem Neighbors 2 presents for an audience member who can't help cueing into the film's underlying politics. While Nicholas Stoller should have been content to stay focused on his chosen topic of Panhellenic gender norms, his script nevertheless takes it upon itself to casually leave its fingerprints on a myriad of other issues, doofily mishandling the subjects every time. For example:
- Jerrod Carmichael has a bit part as one of Zac Efron's former frat brothers who now works as a police officer, complaining about the post-Ferguson push for body cameras on law enforcement. "What am I gonna do--shoot myself?" he says, attempting to pull humor out of the well-documented really of excessive force being used against unarmed black men such as himself nationwide for decades. The shock-value laughter that permeated my all-white Tennessee audience made me pretty uncomfortable.
- When Cloë Grace Moretz & Co. blow the whistle on all local drug dealers in order to corner the market on weed, Carmichael's police officer quickly character proceeds to "humorously" storm into these people's houses unannounced without hard evidence, putting guns in the faces of unsuspecting citizens. This is another example of a harsh reality being presented as nothing more than just that for laugh. Any attendees of Knoxville's Public Cinema who watched Peace Officer know the all-too-pervasive phenomenon of militarized police raids on private homes in the name of the obviously failed War on Drugs--just putting this scenario into a comedy does not make it funny.
- There is a totally misjudged and inappropriate usage of Kanye West's racially charged track "Black Skinhead" accompanying a sequence in which Rogen & Co. prepare to steal a stash of weed from Moretz & Co. The song is more-or-less about, among other things, unwarranted White hostility towards Black Americans, stereotyped as volatile and hostile second-class citizens. Here, the track is stripped of all meaning and diminished into a mere hype track for the white protagonists of this racially tone-deaf comedy.
Two other quick ones:
- When two character find out they are suffering from the effects of date rape drug, one screams out, "We've been Cosby'd!"--as if saying the name of an infamous rapist yet to be put behind bars makes the whole situation comical.
- When Rogen has two friends pose as a Jewish couple living next door, he refers to the pregnant wife as having a "Jew in the oven."
I'm really blown away by how someone as sensitive and politically-minded as Film Crit Hulk can look at a movie filled with these moments and read it as "funny, smart, and dead set on it's target..one of the most good-spirited comedies in years." I guess humor is subjective, but these moments are very much detours on the road to battling sexism, and never ring to me as "good-spirited"...I'm just baffled.
I never really unclenched while watching Neighbors 2. From the awful trailer reel (which included The Purge: Election year and Rogen's Sausage Party, a movie that you couldn't pay me to see) to the end credits, I kept waiting to settle in and feel comfortable watching this film. To offer a counter-example, I went to see Magic Mike XXL with plenty of trepidation, but after 10-15 minutes passed, I just relaxed, assured that I was in capable, actually good-spirited hands and could just enjoy the film. Neighbors 2 never got me there, because I kept getting jabbed with crass and insensitive shock value political references throughout long stretches of definitely-not-for-me, bottom-of-the-barrel toilet humor. So I felt on-edge of the length of the film, and I still feel on-edge about it now.
I'm definitely not opposed to comedy that is politically irreverent or makes people feel uncomfortable. Four of my favorite comedies are Chaplin's The Great Dictator, Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, the Pythons' Life of Brian, and Lee's Chi-Raq, all of which apply humor to hugely controversial ideas and real-world matters of life or death. Tact and nuance are important, and straight-up laughs are crucial. If it could have kept me laughing, I would have been happy to give Neighbors 2 the benefit of the doubt regarding what ideas it is endorsing. Unfortunately, the overwhelming critical response goes to show that political relevance is the biggest thing that this movie has going for it. And for as proud of itself as it is for knowing the word "sexism," I don't think it has much of substance to say about it.