I hardly had what you would call a traditional college experience. I attended a small, private university on the western coast of Lake Michigan. The sides of our campus not eroding away into a Great Lake were flanked by farmland, and the dairy cows lazily grazing upon which were slightly more ambitious than the vast majority of the sixteen-hundred undergrads. This gave my friends and I free reign – I myself co-founded several student organizations, was head staff writer for both student newspapers, was manager of the radio station and host of several programs, wrote the formula to determine student housing assignments, co-authored the constitution of its student government, was elected to the executive council of the same, chairman of the Academic Quality, University Policy, and Student Organization committees, and helped found an Honors College. Having not been campaign manager to two different United States Congressional campaigns simultaneously, I was among the least accomplished of my circle of friends.
While such certainly imbibed me with leadership qualities and a work ethic I would not otherwise have developed to so great an extent, such robbed me of the social life associated with the typical college experience. Two years after dropping out of grad school, sighing wistfully at the road not taken, I took the only logical course of action: I pulled a Rodney Dangerfield and went back to school. I moved to New Jersey’s preeminent college town, and eventually into one of the dorms (yes, this is sitcom logic, but so goes my life). I attended classes, joined clubs, drank at the college dive bars – but still one essential experience was missing: the infamous fraternity party. Or sorority party. I told my friends it didn’t matter, that the latter would be preferable even. That’s when they dropped on me the same disturbing revelation Chloe Grace Moretz’s character Shelby receives at the start of Neighbors 2: sororities don’t throw parties. Worse, in America, they’re actually prohibited from doing so.
Shelby and I were, admittedly, taken aback for very different reasons. Shelby regards the double-standard as misogynistic, with commentary on gender relations becoming a running theme throughout the film. Mine was more pragmatic; given their origins as secret societies, why had fraternities and sororities subjected themselves to the official oversight from universities and national councils? After all, Greek societies were prohibited at my own undergrad university, but the aforementioned circle of friends functioned much in the same way as the earliest fraternities, meeting in the shadows of secrecy in our chapel’s undercroft and together wielding more influence over the school than most faculty or administrators. Whatever advantages public rosters and accountability offer elude me.
Shelby comes to the same conclusion as I did, though her own motivates are merely to party while wearing a sweatshirt (at least Zoolander would never commit such a fashion faux pas). I’ve quite a few Shelbys in my circle of friends these days, male and female. They too attend the one-man fraternity parties I now host at the hotel in town, but unlike the more fun-loving ladies of Omega Phi Alpha, the Shelbys retreat their recluse selves to a quiet corner. I see them sitting there, but I don’t see the appeal. I kept my nose to the grinder in undergrad, and so never attended such parties in the first place, but had I the occasion and opportunity I like to think I’d have carpe’d the noctum. I know for a fact I do so now.
Perhaps that’s why the character of Shelby comes across as so unlikable. Like those of my nerdier friends, she shares neither my academic ambition nor my libertine bacchanality, and her own version of fun seems anything but. Though she’s technically the film’s antagonist, she’s certainly supposed to be sympathetic, but so grating a girl will only seem winsome to a very specific minority of filmgoers.
Zac Efron’s Teddy, on the other hand, is an instantly identifiable character made increasingly less so by an unfortunate arc. His is a struggle that every man faces at some mournful moment in his life, when success seems to have slipped by, ruefully resolving itself to remain out of reach. After dropping out of grad school, I found myself in similar straights, wandering wistfully for a while. Teddy, realizing that he needs to make a change in his life, does what every man contemplates at one point or another: he founds an unrecognized and unregulated sorority and serves as their house-father. It’s a scheme I myself have been contemplating of late as the solution to my lack of long term living plans, even before learning of premise to Neighbors 2.
Quizzically, Teddy’s former fraternity brothers criticize this alternative but awesome arrangement, echoing my mother in their extortions to him to grow up. His arc predictably sees him switching sides to the self-styled “old people.” The film’s celebration of such is somewhat offensive. A plethora of alternative lifestyles have found mainstream acceptance in recent years, depicted in the film by the likes of Dave Franco’s recently out-of-the-closet character Pete and his new fiancé. Yet increasingly disregarded and demonized is the demographic of men such as Teddy and myself who chose to stay single and awesome. I’m a confirmed bachelor; I’ll never marry or have children, and yet despite a successful career and financial independence, the culture at large, including films such as Neighbors 2 through the character of Teddy, cast aspersions on those choices. It is, quite simply, offensive.
I’ve yet to make mention one way or the other as to whether, despite everything enumerated above, the film is funny still. The fact of the matter is, Neighbors 2 is often hilarious, particularly in its raunchiness and vulgarity. But landing a joke every minute or so is to be expected of a comedy; such is truly the bare minimum of the genre. All of the best comedies have not only humor, but relatable characters and poignant statements about the human condition. Star Seth Rogan surely understands as much; arguably the greatest comedy of the 21st century is his semi-autobiographical Superbad. The main character of Seth, clearly based on himself, is nonetheless the everyman American high schooler, one with whom any audience member can relate. And what he learns about the fraternal bonds of brotherhood during his hero’s journey for booze and babes is a more universal message than the tired and generic gender politics of Neighbors 2. Sorority Rising doesn’t even have the daring to be counter-cultural or iconoclastic; instead of challenging the zeitgeist it embraces such wholeheartedly. Not all art has to be deeply insightful and incisive per se, but Neighbors 2 seems needless without such. It has no truly likable leads, but at least a Stone-and-Parker-esq “I learned something today…” might’ve redeemed the movie. As it is, Sorority Rising is too similar to the early episodes of South Park; all dick jokes and shock humor but bereft of substance.