Most of the time, Zac Efron isn’t a very good actor. In projects as varied as That Awkward Moment, We Are Your Friends, Dirty Grandpa, The Paperboy, and At Any Price, he’s had opportunities to play all manners of comedy, drama, and romance, and he approaches it all with the same himbo blankness. Yet something happens to Efron when he plays Teddy Sanders, the frat-boy frenemy of new parents Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, just as it did in the original Neighbors. Efron imbues his handsome-dope routine with such nuance that Teddy is not only funny but also touching in his sincere desire for brotherhood, in short supply postgraduation. What could have been simplistic self-parody becomes a genuinely, almost confusingly terrific performance.
It’s not just that the Neighbors 2 screenwriters (a five-man team) write better jokes for Efron than he gets anywhere else, though they do. Their screenplay also approaches Teddy and every other character in Neighbors 2 with a real sense of empathy that goes a long way toward mitigating the pointlessness of making a Neighbors 2 at all. The first film worked fine on its own as a story of generational conflict between two groups that didn’t want to believe they could be in a generational conflict: the formerly cool young parents and their friendly neighborhood frat boys. In the comedy-sequel tradition, Neighbors 2 replays the dynamic from the first movie, but more so. Now Mac and Kelly have a second baby on the way and want to sell their house, not just get a good night’s sleep. Just as their potential sale enters escrow (which involves a funny scene in which they admit that they don’t actually remember what escrow is or how it works), a sorority starts renting the house next door, where Teddy’s fraternity used to rage.
Teddy re-enters the picture as a mentor to Kappa Nu, the sorority formed by Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz), Beth (Dope’s Kiersey Clemons), and Nora (Beanie Feldstein), three freshmen girls who are appalled to learn that “real” sororities aren’t actually allowed to throw parties, just attend those thrown by frats. (The movie stresses that this is “an actual real thing”: “Google it,” advises one character, talking to new pledges but also the audience.) This misfit trio founds Kappa Nu to throw ragers based on their own whims, rather than subjecting themselves to fratty objectification. As with Efron’s buddies from the first film, the Kappa Nu girls aren’t malicious; they genuinely like each other and want to have a better time in college than they did as high-school outcasts.
But where Kappa Nu sees sisterhood, Mac and Kelly see crazy parties that could scare their buyers out of the deal. Once again, they find themselves pitted against young people whose rituals mystify them. This feels less like a rehash than it should, because Rogen, director/co-writer Nicholas Stoller, and the three other credited screenwriters weave together an entire broad demographic’s worth of comic anxieties, covering life changes from 18 to 35: The Kappa Nu girls want to cement their friendships, Mac and Kelly fret about whether they’re suitable parents (and whether their daughter will grow up into a terrifying party monster), and Teddy is caught in the middle as he notices his twentysomething friends reaching milestones before him.
It’s this quarter-life crisis that allows Efron to shine, underplaying his dimness to masterfully sell both a series of dumb-guy jokes (like a distraught, shoeless run that leaves him limping or his purely circumstantial ability to do math) and a sweetly clumsy desire to be “of value” to the people around him. Efron isn’t the only performer who rises to the occasion. Moretz has rarely shaken her over-emotive kid-actor tics this confidently. Rogen and Byrne are old pros at this point, and they remain great fun as a married couple, well-matched in their good intentions and dopey impulses. (Byrne’s Kelly is, if possible, even less of a sensible wife than she was last time around.)
The performers goose the many laughs more often than the filmmaking. Visually speaking, director Stoller’s steady improvement may have plateaued; Neighbors 2 is a little more jittery and rushed than the first film, jamming more characters into an even shorter running time. Stoller seems to save up all of his set-piece ambitions for a delirious sequence set at a massive tailgate party, involving a theft, foot chase, and several skirmishes, scored to the Kanye West song “Black Skinhead” and, less inventively but still satisfyingly, the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” But if this story isn’t as conceptually immediate or clearly executed as its predecessor, it makes a lot of sharp points about male-female double standards, aging, and the acceleration of intergenerational conflicts. It’s also very funny. For Rogen, that makes it one more good comedy among many. Within the Efron filmography, though, this may stand as a masterpiece.