By SEBASTIAN MOORE
Bad Neighbours 2, co-written, starring, and pretty much shepherded through by schlubby man/comedy juggernaut Seth Rogen, continues in the tradition of his brand of comedy in that it again exceeds limited expectations. 2014’s surprise hit Bad Neighbours made over $270 million at the international box office but was designed as a one-off so there was no other reason to make a sequel besides financial gain. Fortunately Rogen and co. do everything they can to give this a better reason to exist. The original cast returns, with Rogen and Rose Byrne reprising their roles of Mac and Kelly, a couple still awkwardly straddling that line between post-college agitation and fully-fledged adulthood. The frat next door has moved on so Mac and Kelly are trying to sell their house while things are (for the moment) relatively peaceful. A college freshman, however (played by Chloe Grace Moretz), wants to start her own sorority and rents the house next door… and drunken, drug-fuelled, dildo-laden hijinks inevitably ensue.
While it doesn’t buck the sequel trend of ‘more is more’, Bad Neighbours 2 works unexpectedly well as a comedy of this time and feels particularly prescient in its handling of social issues which usually run against the spirit of crude comedy. It isn’t necessarily preachy but it uses topics of sexism, gay rights, and race relations in sharply self-aware ways that add a fresh dimension to the frat-comedy formula. This doesn’t exactly make it a benchmark of the genre but it salvages an otherwise overloaded film. There’s four or five different entry points here, and the surfeit of plots often topple over one another. You get the sense Rogen and his writing team threw everything at the wall and kept the ideas that didn’t stick. There’s always movement though so it’s never lethargic or unengaging but it often feels more like a collage of amusing moments than a cohesive narrative.
Zac Efron is the surprise MVP here; his macho/homoerotic/deeply sensitive frat-boy character returning and given even more to work with than in the first film. His blank facial expressions provide a landscape of funny reactions and his willingness to perform shirtless is exploited at every turn by Rogen and director Nick Stoller. It’s a strange thing to observe in a frat comedy that has scenes of bikini clad sorority girls but there doesn’t seem to be much of a male gaze at work here. The women are in control, and the perspective of these scenes often support that. Efron, however, feels intensely gazed upon in a way that makes him seem quite vulnerable. This shifting of perspective – and indeed, power – is indicative of the film’s progressive intentions.
Beyond its surprising gender politics though, the comedy of the film achieves the delicate balance of being crude without becoming mean-spirited. Friendship seems to be the overriding theme here, and the girls in the sorority eventually realise that this can be attained without degradation or a compromise of personal values. Notwithstanding its overabundance of plot, Bad Neighbours 2 is an altogether enlightened comedy, and that’s especially rare in a studio system where picking the lowest hanging fruit has become accepted practice of the trade.