If you can make me laugh and smuggle a positive message into your comedy, you’re fine by me. Bad Neighbours 2 is pretty paper-thin where its story is concerned and doesn’t really pull off the risks it takes with your liking its principal characters, but it’s got some big laughs, and doesn’t take an obvious path.
Sequels are an inevitability when a film does well ($270 million worldwide off an $18 million budget in this case) and point to this as emblematic of a timid, gun-shy Hollywood if you will, but hey: it’s an original property, so count your blessings. And besides, I never saw the first one, so it’s all gravy for me. Maybe this is a valuable experiment in whether a comedy sequel can stand on its own feet without your foreknowledge, or maybe I’m just derelict in my duty, but either way you can judge a comedy without relying on too much nuance: does it make you laugh or not?
Yes, is the answer here, in that there are plenty of good lines, explosive slapstick moments and the sheer joy of Zac Efron’s many talents. But the sum of its parts doesn’t add up to much of a whole: it works fine as a string of good set-pieces but largely runs from Alpha to Beta Kappa and you forget most of the story beats five minutes after you leave.
Fortunately, I made notes.
Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne’s Mac and Kelly are now selling their house and need 30 days without disruption during the Escrow period (a concept mercifully explained for international audiences by their estate agent: it’s a sort of financial limbo before properties are formally exchanged). But the next-door house formerly occupied by the fraternity is now home to Chloe Grace Moretz’s sorority, Kappa Nu, so here we go again. Zac Efron’s Teddy, now directionless in a post-college funk, returns to lend mainly shirtless support as the inside man.
The obvious path would be to make the sisters a bunch of sassy, entitled millennials, and push the R-rating with a few bikini car washes, some boozed-up sex and so on. But here’s where it does something great. Moretz has set up the new chapter in reaction to the policy that sororities aren’t permitted to throw their own parties (more or less true, amazingly) and as a counterpunch to the expectation placed on women in the Greek system: show up at a frat house because you can’t drink at your own, dress hot and wait for a man to select you for sex. In Kappa Nu they hold feminist icon-themed parties, and the fancy dress works just as well as a gentle rib at earnest student politics as it does a cracking visual gag.
Now this makes you love the face off Moretz, but it unbalances the whole thing, because next door Mac and Kelly, on whose side you’re largely supposed to be, are busy doing some fairly shoddy parenting.
There are a lot of good jokes here: their daughter plays with a dildo which they keep explaining away as a cartoon character; they constantly swear in front of her; Mac is – inevitably – a stoner, but no effort is made to explain this away as the forgivable result of tiredness or existential angst. Neither seems motivated in life beyond the typical autopilot ladder-climbing of suburban capitalism: get a job, any job, try and keep it, have a kid, buy a bigger house. As far as their being able to move house without complication goes, sure, they’ve earned it – but it doesn’t make them the sort of characters for whom we’ll root for that to happen. None of their actions in isolation makes them bad people; they’re just carelessly drawn for protagonists.
Luckily, Zac Efron is on their side. I’ve never seen him in any significant role before, and he’s a wonderful revelation to me roughly four years after I suppose he was to everyone else. Constantly poking fun at his teen idol persona, he can do it all: the vulnerability of the dumb college jock suddenly without his support network (“Are we going to hang out after all this?” he suddenly asks Rogen, putting the skids masterfully on a big slapstick scene), physical comedy (more airbags; splendid receipt of a tyre in the face), sharp-as-a-tack line delivery. There is a great talent in looking like he does with his shirt off, still taking it off at every available opportunity, and retaining the sense of self-deprecation needed not to come off an absolute tool.
Despite a weirdly low-key ending you rarely see in comedies (no big house-down joke or sequel hint as a closer), you leave happy and with the sense that Nicholas Stoller deserves a pat on the back for taking the path less trodden. The imbalance created by some poor choices around the principal characters is just about made up for by some big plus points both comic and socially relevant, so you might as well pledge and go with it.