“In the United States, sororities aren’t allowed to throw parties in their own houses. Only frats can … Google it,” sorority president Selena Gomez tells a room full of pledges at the beginning of Neighbors 2. It’s the kind of cringe-y line that instantly shows that this movie is going to talk about sexist double standards and, oh, probably hit you over the head with that theme. The film is trying to be “woke,” but it also carries much of the baggage associated with that word at this point in 2016. In broad strokes it can feel loudly and proudly progressive, but when you drill down it’s not really saying anything new or exciting.
After going to a particularly gnarly (pretty standard) frat party, Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz), Beth (Kiersey Clemons), and Nora (Beanie Feldstein) decide to start their own independent “sorority,” right next door to our unlucky-in-real-estate lead couple Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne). For the most part, we’re supposed to be on the ladies’ side. They’re fighting the outdated rules of the Greek system to carve out a place for themselves in a patriarchal world, all while hoping to have fun and be safe (something not a lot of colleges can promise). Even when they do some pretty terrible things to their next-door rivals Mac and Kelly (like rob them blind), we’re still kind of supposed to want the sisters to succeed.
The problem with all this is that while it may cause you to nod your head in agreement occasionally, you never really feel emotionally connected to these characters, and it’s hard to ignore that a lot of the time they’re oversimplifying things. Instead of being flawed but kick-ass women, they still each feel like rough drafts of Feminism 101 textbooks. Too often they’re forced to complain or rant about things they deem sexist without really getting to participate in the jokes. At one point, the women tell Teddy (Zac Efron) that his frat’s ho-themed parties (such as “CEOs and corporate hos”) were offensive. It’s presented as a teaching moment, but it doesn’t feel natural; the women feel like mouthpieces for an agenda, not intelligent, fleshed-out characters. Why do none of them even mention that the obvious punch line should be “C-E-hos” and bankers? Instead of letting the women riff and have fun while delivering their message, they’re too often forced to exist as signposts for the audience (or our male characters) to “learn something” from.
One of the great punch lines of the film is when the “written by” credit appears on the screen after the movie. The names you’ll see are: Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O’Brien, Nicholas Stoller, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg. Five men wrote the movie. To their credit, they did do some research: Goldberg told USA Today that he read a huge number of feminist essays. Stoller sent the script to Lena Dunham, as he told Screencrush, “just to make sure we weren’t accidentally doing anything that was offensive.” They also brought in two female comedy writers, Amanda Lund and Maria Blasucci, to punch up jokes on set. They’re listed as associate producers, because, as Stoller told The Hollywood Reporter, with the quick turnaround time between movies there wasn’t enough time for them to meet Writers Guild union standards to give a woman a credit on the film.
That excuse explains why, at its heart, this movie is still about men figuring stuff out. Though there are a few glimpses of the women being in on the party — a great marijuana-theft sequence; a sorority theme party where the women dress up as feminist icons and we get three versions of Hillary Clinton (one Zac Efron); even a requisite “females can be as gross as males in a raunchy comedy” tampon-throwing scene — this is ultimately a movie about the male characters. Mac learns a little bit about the way women are treated, and hopefully that’ll help make him a better father to two daughters, while Teddy (Zac Efron) learns that maybe the way he saw women in college wasn’t so great. Perhaps the worst part is that because the movie operates through Rogen’s and Efron’s characters, Neighbors 2 actually spends less time with women being funny, since Rose Byrne’s character — you know, the breakout from the first film — finds herself with a greatly diminished role.
Neighbors 2 definitely made a valiant effort to seem aware, but it’s all surface, and surely not deserving of the credit it gets. Calling this movie feminist or a great example for other comedies is absurd considering how little fun the female leads get to have. That doesn’t mean the creators don’t deserve some praise. They decided they were going to add a bunch of female characters for the follow-up to their 2014 summer hit, and that’s commendable. It’s not something every sequel does. But, in a world where dope females are breaking through in an industry that repeatedly says they are not wanted, that they can be replaced or written off, or that they are “too female,” we don’t need to call everything progressive that just states what we already know. The idea that men and women should be equal and that women shouldn’t have to worry about being raped isn’t progressive. It’s the bare minimum.