Nicholas Stoller’s Bad Neighbours slunk in and out of cinemas in the UK in 2014 without generating much fuss either way. The comedy vehicle saw new parents Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) battling against a fraternity house that rocked up next door and it stuck firmly and comfortably within the realms of college / stoner comedies. It played it safe, it mustered a few laughs and it was gone again. Another so-so American comedy. Not terribly bad, but not much to remember, save for the painful and hilarious misuse of some airbags.
That it has generated a sequel is something of a surprise, but not nearly as surprising as the progressive manifesto concealed within. It’s a couple of years later. Mac and Kelly are looking to sell their house with another kid on the way. It looks like a done-deal, but the bong-hitting pair’s fateful misunderstanding of the finer points of escrow means that they have 30 days before the sale is finally agreed. And it just so happens that a group of freshman girls have moved in next door, looking to start up their own sorority.
But here’s the thing, and it’s something the film goes to great pains to underline; in the states sororities cannot actually throw parties, yet their male contemporaries can.
We’re introduced to a young trio new to campus; Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), Beth (Kiesey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein). They’re average young women away from home for the first time, looking to have a good time but on their own terms. Discovering that, for all intents and purposes, this means enduring the misogynistic frat parties offers little satisfaction. It’s almost unheard of for Hollywood to depict these blow outs from the perspectives we see here. They’re simply horrific. Quite understandably the girls elect to set up their own off-campus sorority in order to live as they choose and party as they choose. It’s just too bad that it’s next to Mac and Kelly.
The original Bad Neighbours operated as gross-out dumb comedy with nothing else beneath the surface. The sea change here feels like a minor miracle and positions Stoller’s sequel as one of the most respectable endeavours to have appeared from Hollywood so far this year. It genuinely feels like something of a breakthrough in terms of it’s considered outrage at this brazen example of inequality. This isn’t about teenybopper ‘girl power’; it’s about fairness and feminism. In amongst all the buffoonery is a genuine and fiery statement of indignation.
And it doesn’t end there. Also returning is Mac and Kelly’s former nemesis Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron). When we’re reintroduced to him, he’s being politely asked to move out of the apartment he shares with former frat buddy Pete (Dave Franco). In the first movie a little comedy was eked out of Pete’s evidently closeted homosexuality. In the intervening two years, Pete has come out as gay and gotten engaged to his boyfriend.
This isn’t treated as a joke. It’s not even treated as remarkable. Teddy embraces the news and is happy for his friend, even as it pushes him back to his fraternity roots, getting him into the mix with the sorority girls. In some respects this franchise seems to have grown up, and you get to thinking it could really teach the rest of Hollywood a thing or two about a thing or two. Teddy also, unexpectedly, comes to represent the heart of the movie as he goes through his own understated crisis of identity. Efron manages to put in the best performance of Bad Neighbours 2.
With an actual point to make and with what feels like a fundamentally modern approach to society that triumphs equality, Bad Neighbours 2 has all the makings of a genuinely superior sequel. Except there’s a critical problem that Stoller’s film crushingly fails to hurdle.
It’s not funny.
Not even once.
Quite how this all goes so wrong can be broken down into examples of missed opportunities or baffling bad decisions. There are clear causes. The series sorely needed to forget about Mac and Kelly’s more-atrocious friends Jimmy (Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (Carla Gallo). Instead it gives them more screen time than ever and it’s time painfully wasted. In terms of running gags, the film’s strongest is that toddler Stella likes to hold one of mummy’s dildos. While a late attempt to rekindle the hilarity of dangerously deployed airbags struggles to get off of the ground.
Most grating of all is the seeming belief that dialogue is funnier if it’s just being said loudly. Bad Neighbours 2 originated with the title Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising (we get the ‘Bad‘ presumably in case anyone thinks that they’re going to see an Australian soap spin-off), but this entire endeavour could just as easily be named Shouting: The Movie for both sides of the Atlantic. I didn’t go into the theatre with a headache, but I sure as shit came out with one.
Laugh after laugh fails to land, and quite worryingly there are five credited writers on this movie, including it’s star Seth Rogen. Rogen and Byrne feel lost in the shuffle of the crowded cast, neither offering up anything of particular spirit. If anything Byrne’s Kelly seems dumber in this movie than she did in the first. The sorority girls are fine (Feldstein seems like something of a find), yet their drug-pushing antics are less than endearing, while their war with the ‘old people’ next door lacks much-needed inspiration. Falling back on gross-out doesn’t work for the movie either. There’s something wholly uncomfortable about sitting in a cinema audience watching a comedy in a deathly communal silence.
For all its immense potential as a vehicle for some small societal advancement, Bad Neighbours 2 drops the ball when it comes to basic entertainment. That’s a real shame, because even if it had the hit-to-miss ratio of the admittedly middling first movie, this still could’ve felt like something a little special. Instead we’re left with an experience that feels both dynamic and hopelessly redundant. If only some of the magic that landed on Everybody Wants Some!! had made it onto the set of this movie.
See it for the heartening politics at its core. Try and forgive it the sloppy presentation.