Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Bad Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising (2016) - Movie Review

2014’s Bad Neighbours, or Neighbors as it is known in the U.S., might be one of the best stoner comedies of recent years. Nicholas Stoller struck gold on this one, using the tried-and-true formula of weed smokers contemplating their place in life and the prospect of getting older and creating some genuinely thought-provoking work. It might have some of the best character writing of the entire year’s crop worth of films, up to and including Zac Efron’s weirdly relatable antagonist turned near-supervillain. And, of course, it was also my first proper exposure to the absolutely brilliant use of music that is a trademark of Point Grey Productions, making me better appreciate film soundtracks from then on. So, naturally, when the sequel was announced, I was undoubtedly looking forward to it. Sure, it seems to be following Sequel Rule #2425 (If in doubt, swap the genders out), but I have enough faith in these filmmakers and these actors to still bring decent product. I’ve mentioned before that I have no issue with being proven wrong when it comes to expectations; yeah, not so much this time, so let’s just hope it all works out.

The plot: Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne), expecting another child, are trying to sell their old house, which is put in escrow for the next 30 days; if the prospective buyers find anything bad about the house, they can back out of the deal without losing money. However, it seems that keeping up appearances will be difficult as Shelby (Chlöe Grace Moretz) and her sorority Kappa Nu has moved into the now-abandoned Delta Psi frathouse. Teddy (Zac Efron) initially helps the sorority as a means of getting back at the Radners, but once they turn him away, he’s willing to help the Radners get rid of Kappa Nu so that they can finally move out of the neighbourhood.

The acting here is pretty damn good, both from our returning cast and from the new faces. Rogen still plays the lovable stoner as breezily well as ever, Byrne works with both the laid-back and unhinged aspects of her character very nicely, Barinholtz is still obnoxious but not to the point where you feel like he needs to be taken aside for a good long talking to, Efron maintains his likeable bro-douche typecasting without missing a beat, and Dave Franco as Pete still has the best bromance imaginable with him, even though the word ‘bromance’ takes on a whole new meaning in relation to him but we’ll get to that. From the newcomers, Grace Moretz is solid as our conflicted antagonist, managing to outdo Efron from the first film in certain regards, Clemons makes a very welcome appearance as the BFF and Feldstein may be playing the Sloth of the group, but she still does an admirable job with it. Selena Gomez is thankfully underutilised, Kelsey Grammer brings a couple of head tilts and also some good chuckles with his walk-on role, and Nora Lum… Okay, I cannot really express how happy I am to see Awkwafina in a mainstream film like this, and she does a great job in probably her ideal role as one of the sorority sisters.

The first Bad Neighbours film’s biggest strength was how tightly its characters were realised, and while this feels like a slight step backward for some, this still holds up alongside it. Mac and Kelly are still the best on-screen stoner couple ever, Teddy’s impulsiveness and fear of his life’s direction makes his actions during the film still feel true to his character and Jimmy is still an idiot. Shelby is essentially the distaff Teddy, but credit where it’s due in that she is written well even within that niche as the dissatisfied party girl who ends up making some… let’s say uncomfortable compromises later on. However, their relationships between characters feel either off, or downgraded from what we’ve seen before. Mac and Kelly still work as the main characters, but they aren’t nearly as strong as they were before. Mainly because they’re a little too comfortable with what’s going on around them. Yeah, they’ve been through this same neighbour war before, but they still come across as somewhat complacent. This is in spite of Kelly just lashing the hell out at a few characters, which is surprisingly cathartic especially when it’s aimed at Lisa Kudrow’s returning dean; maybe it’s because I can’t fucking stand Friends, I don’t know. Also, considering Pete’s character revelation here: I don’t know what it is about this new breed of bro-y homosexual characters that have been cropping up between this and the Ted movies, but I demand more of them because it’s kind of awesome to see Hollywood exploring this kind of territory.

Outside of characters, the writing is kind of muddled in terms of how smart the script is. Muddled because it feels like they only had a set number of brain cells to work with and had to make compromises between the different aspects of the story. In terms of the specifics of the actual confrontation between the Radners and the sorority, it cuts a few more corners compared to the original. Where that film looked at almost every possible alternative to suburban warfare before launching straight into it, this kind of takes the lazy route. Like, to the point where the dean says that the sorority essentially have infinite strikes so the old tactics won’t work; that kind of thing. Points for bringing the one option that they didn’t go after last time, but still. However, in place of that, this film tries its hand at a bit of gender commentary.

Now, given the whole gender-reversal sequel plot, I was expecting this to just end up being the half-arsed label-swapping attempt at being clever that makes me grind my teeth in anger. And yeah, it does dip its toes into that pool but the way its handled in terms of the sorority itself is interesting, particularly when it comes to Shelby’s mindset. Basically, they take a more accusatory look at the fraternity rape culture… ugh, I feel foul just typing that. Seriously, “rape culture” might be one of the single ugliest terms in the English language. Anyway, when that’s put in proximity to Shelby and her want to have fun without involving that kind of douchey behaviour, it makes for some nice bits of pathos, especially when it comes what necessary evils she’s willing to commit for her own freedom. I’m not calling her, Beth and Nora ‘strong, independent women’, because that phrase has lost all conceivable meaning at this point, but kudos are definitely due for portraying actual feminist characters that don’t regress into Tumblr-era annoyance.

It’s a Point Grey production, so of course I have to talk about the soundtrack. Now, while this doesn’t have anything as singularly glorious as the first film’s London Bridge moment, this is still a solid track list both in their own right and in how they’re used. Probably the closest this film gets to that kind of musical genius comes early on when Pete is proposed to… while his brothers sing Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours. That combination of white guy with acoustic guitar ballad, fraternity setting and progressive situation is damn near perfect.

Beyond that, we’ve got the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage for a pretty cool-looking action sequence, made even better by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Greatest American Hero reference, Eric Carmen’s All By Myself serving as the backdrop for a hilariously cheesy breakdown from Teddy… and then there’s Black Skinhead. Okay, even for someone as storied as Kanye West, Black Skinhead is easily one of his greatest compositions, to the point where it’s presence in the trailer alone sold me on the movie. Here, it gets a tune-up, given a school band feel with more emphasis on natural drums and horns. What results from all that is that extremely rare remix that is legitimately better than the original; seriously, the brass section on this song is insane. I rarely get the point of saying this but this song is being sold as a single. If I can’t sell you on this movie, for the love of all things holy, buy that single.

All in all, while not quite as funny or crisply written as the original, this is still a worthy follow-up. It managed to make me laugh with a Holocaust joke and a timely Cosby joke, and I’m a bit of a prude when it comes to my comedy, so it must be doing something right. Besides the lack of comedic taste, the characters are still fun, the acting is on par and the writing makes some nice points relating to the male-female sexual divide. Oh, and the soundtrack is a-mazing! If you liked the first film, or any of Rogen’s stoner comedy work to date, definitely check this one out.

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