'Neighbors 2' Wants to Be a Feminist Bro Comedy — But Does It Succeed?
The "bro comedy," at least as moviegoers once knew it, is dead. The exact time and cause of death is unclear, though March 16, 2012, seems as good a date as any.
That day marked the release of 21 Jump Street, a bro comedy that was far smarter, funnier and socially aware than it had any right to be. In the comedic remake of the '80s crime series of the same name, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill starred as police officers who go undercover at a high school. Hill's character assumes that, as the hot bro, Tatum's will be popular. In fact, the standards of popularity have reversed, and Hill's nerdier qualities made him beloved. Being a hot jerk wasn't cool anymore — being a socially conscious, sensitive guy was.
Read more: A '23 Jump Street'/'Men in Black' Crossover Film Is in the Works and Fans Aren't Impressed
It was a case of art both imitating the changing ways of life: 21 Jump Street mirrored the moves away from celebrating douchebaggery among high school students, as well as extending that trend into the ranks of adults. Imagine how woke bae Matt McGorry would have been received just five years ago. Today, for better or worse, he's an icon.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is the first real attempt in a bro comedy since 21 Jump Street to not just adjust to a new status quo, but advance it. The sequel to the 2014 surprise hit is perhaps the first film of its genre to repeatedly call itself out for being sexist. Instead of focusing on a fraternity like the first Neighbors, the film shifts the Greek action in question to a sorority. The female characters' agency is prioritized, and as one half of the married couple living next door to the sorority, Rose Byrne is just as central to the action as she was in the first movie.
For its efforts, Neighbors 2 was quickly called feminist by multiple critics and received praise from almost all corners. But after a disappointing first weekend gross at the box office, it's worth evaluating how well Neighbors 2 actually succeeds in its mission of being a feminist bro comedy.
Broadly, Neighbors 2 gets it right. The central story is a remarkable one to see in a major blockbuster: Three young women (led by Chloe Grace Moretz) are grossed out by the fraternity party scene that objectifies girls. It sets up an expectation that in exchange for throwing a party, the women will have sex with the frat brothers. Yet sororities can't throw their own parties because of deeply arcane rules that reek of sexism. So the women start their own sorority.
Byrne's character and her husband (Seth Rogen) are thrilled for the girls, but they're in escrow on their house. They need peace and quiet for 30 days, just until they sell their house. The girls, egged on by the married couple's former frat nemesis Teddy (Zac Efron), assert their right to be as rowdy as the boys are. Like the first Neighbors, this leads to a rapidly escalating prank war.
It's a good story, with no clear "right side": The girls are right to want to be treated the way the boys are, and the couple next door agrees. They just also have competing interests. How Neighbors 2 treats that story is an entirely different matter. The script, written by five different men, constantly calls out how sexist the situation is (Selena Gomez has a cameo in which basically all she does is outline how sororities can't throw their own parties). There's a lot of reflection, often to the detriment of moving the story forward.
Because of this, when the plot does advance, it's often at an absurd velocity that relies on the characters being idiots to make the story work. One prank involves stealing the sorority's weed they're trying to sell at a tailgate. Why not just rat the girls out to the police? Great question!
Neighbors 2 is a movie that trips over its good intentions. On the surface, it appears to represent a real sea change for bro comedies. No longer are the sexist, homophobic movies of the mid-2000s permissible, it seems to say. But as a movie — as a piece of art separate from the social concerns around it — it's weaker than the first Neighbors.
Stardom is changing in 2016, and thus so must the films the stars appear in. The bro comedy as it was once known is dead because its values aren't consistent with a moviegoing audience that wants more socially conscious, representative filmmaking. Neighbors 2 is a decent start. The next films that change the mold will hopefully be even better.