Stoller: Bad Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016)

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Although it was a long time coming, Bad Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising is probably the definitive post-bromance, whatever that now means. In retrospect, it feels as if the the bromance craze that hit the mid to late 00s was about a number of things – elongating the romantic comedy as a viable cinematic genre for as long as possible, coming to terms with an increasingly homosocial media universe and, above all, providing a kind of graduation into adulthood for the first post-patriarchal generation of young men. Of course, that’s not to suggest that patriarchy was no longer present in the lives of these millennials or that it had necessarily diminished at a global level but that its rituals, institutions and ceremonies were no longer capable of being taken at face value in mainstream cinema as they were even a decade previously. Where some films tended to ironise and parody the kinds of male bonding that were once one of the lynchpins of the adolescent and young adult market, the bromance only opted for irony provisionally, in order to reinvest these fraternal rituals with the homosocial power that they once possessed, if only by acknowledging, incorporating and neutralising their homoerotic undertones in the process.

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It made sense, then, that when these bros finally reached adulthood they would have reimagined a new patriarchal vocabulary of their own, albeit a vocabulary that had managed to internalise and incorporate all those homoerotic possibilities that had once seemed to stand in direct opposition to patriarchal continuity. As a result, pinpointing the post-bromance, as a genre, was somewhat difficult. At one level, it could refer to those films in which the collection of actors and directors at the heart of this new brat pack – Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Jonah Hill – played officially adult characters, or at least characters with adult responsibilities. From that perspective, films like This is 40 and, more recently, The Night Before, would probably count as classic post-bromances, insofar as they feature bros finding a way to wrest some kind of patriarchal authority and continuity from the very factors that a decade or two ago would have seemed to categorically preclude it. That transformation was particularly clear in the case of This is 40, the “sort-of sequel” to Knocked Up, which focused on two of the characters who were directly opposed to the bromance ethos in the original film and – somewhat implausibly – turned them into the beneficiaries of the bromance genre as a whole.

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At the same time, there was another category of post-bromances that went in the opposite direction, focusing on failed efforts to consolidate the bromantic ethos into something resembling a stable family situation or sustained patriarchal conviction. A film like Funny People, with its odd structure and strange rhythm of consolidation and dispersal, would fall into this category, even if it didn’t exactly fulfil the trajectory of the bromance in the same way as the conservatism of films like This is 40 and The Night Before either. It also felt appropriate that Funny People was the film in which Aubrey Plaza first really came to the public’s attention, since this type of post-bromance typically featured women as something considerably more than the middle term between brolovers, which is perhaps why I also see the kinds of drifting female friendships present in the mumblecore movement as another example of this post-bromantic landscape.

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Part of what makes Bad Neighbours 2: Sorority Rising so brilliant is the way in which it fuses those two quite disparate versions of post-bromance. In the first film, we were presented with a fairly straightforward standoff between old bros and young bros: on one side of the fence were Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne and their newfound aspirations towards nuclear family stability; on the other side of the fence were Zac Efron, Dave Franco and their wild fraternity. While the film treated the conflict with a certain tongue-in-cheek irony, there was also a sense that Rogen and Byrne represented something to seriously aspire towards, just as there was a sense that Efron and Franco’s hijinks were ultimately irresponsible and reckless. In Bad Neighbours 2, however, that generational divide is complicated by two different yet related narrative innovations that transform this into something like a parodic riff on the original film rather than a sequel in the traditional sense.

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First of all, this time around Rogen and Byrne aren’t presented with a fraternity but a sorority. After they finally manage to sell their house and go into escrow, they’re horrified to find that the placed next door has once again been rented out to a crowd of raucous teenagers, this time led by Chloe Grace Moretz in one of the best performances of her career. However, this is no ordinary sorority but a breakaway sorority that have claimed their own quarters so as to be able to throw parties that are about more than just servicing misogynist fraternities. From the very beginning of the film, then, the sorority is presented as a gesture of civil disobedience – apparently there are actually different laws concerning parties held at fraternities and sororities – which immediately gives their rituals a different kind of legitimacy and cache. What ensues plays out as an interesting response to the idea of a female bromance, since while this collection of girls certainly share the kinds of chilled-out, laidback, homosocial friendships typical of bromances, the fact that they are most emphatically not “girls who can hang” – that is, surrogate bros – also places them at something of an oblique angle to the bromance phenomenon as well.

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On top of all that, the fact that the sorority is both a feminist gesture and an act of civil disobedience tends to puncture any residual moral superiority or arrogation of maturity on the part of Rogen and Byrne’s characters. Up until this point, one of their draw cards has been their baby daughter, but when Moretz questions whether they’d like their daughter to live in a world in which their kind of sorority experiment is stifled, all the sting is taken out of Rogen and Byrne’s ability to morally anchor the film. Without their guiding presence, the film, in turn, is free to devolve into a much more anarchic, freeform style of comedy than Bad Neighbours, full of comic asides and marginalia that would normally be relegated to the final outtakes reel, most notably a stand-alone sketch in which Hannibal Buress leads a posse of racist African-American policemen on a ransacking raid through a series of whiter-than-white suburban homes. At the same time, Rogen and Byrne don’t exactly become irrelevant, or sidelined – it’s more that their lifestyle just becomes one choice among many in a wider picaresque web, which tends to remove their sense of oppositional entitlement more than simply wiping them out of the picture ever could. Indeed, their characters almost seem relieved to have a pretext to sympathise with the sorority, and one of the beautiful ironies of the film is the way in which they gradually come to feel protective for their neighbours even as they’re plotting against them, as if learning a style of parenthood that doesn’t depend upon promulgating parenthood itself as the only way of life.

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Of course, Zec Efron also helps Rogen and Byrne stay in the picture, forming a bridge between them and the sorority, although the fact of how he ends up in the sorority in the first place is what constitutes the film’s second stroke of genius. In the opening scene, Efron, Franco and their fraternity buddies gather for a reunion, during which one of the bros suddenly proposes to Franco and he tearfully accepts, meaning that Efron has to move out of his house to make way for his new spouse. So seamlessly does the transition occur that I found myself questioning whether this gay romance had been foregrounded in the earlier film – I don’t think it had – and that seamlessness is where the comic genius lies, as we see bromance segueing into gay marriage before our very eyes, with Efron himself finding a job as a wedding consultant for gay bros by the end of the film. Gay bro culture has been a thing for a long time – after all, the main subreddit about gay life is devoted to it – but the utter plausibility and even inevitability with which which the bromantic ethos turns into a version of gay marriage is what makes Bad Neighbours 2 so special, as well as turning it into the first parody of gay marriage that I’ve seen that doesn’t really seem driven by a homophobic agenda. Instead, marrying your bro is presented as a totally vanilla option, completely continuous with Rogen and Byrne’s mortgage and escrow, putting a new spin on the best man – “I’m not losing a best friend, I’m gaining a best friend’s husband” – and absorbing the bromance back into the nuclear family once and for all.

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Caught between the two poles of Rogen and Byrne’s married life and Franco and his boyfriend’s married life, the sorority quickly comes to encapsulate everything that is anarchic and irreverent about the film, with Chloe Grace Moretz, in particular, putting in a performance of such comic dynamism and kinetic irreverence that it quickly overshadows everyone else around her. Frequently recalling her performance in Kick-Ass, her incongruous asides and ability to muster the collective charisma of the sorority tend to be strongest on and around social media, especially SmartPhones. While SmartPhone gags are par for the course in any teen comedy, they’re put to particularly brilliant use here, most memorably in a scene in which the entire sorority holds a conference about Efron while he’s discursing to them about the importance of responsibility and maturity, but most pervasively in an extended narrative gag in which the sorority steal Rogen and Byrne’s mobile phones and use them to propel the married couple into just the kind of bickering married groove they swore they’d never experience. Indeed, for the entire second act it often feels as if the sorority are scripting Rogen and Byrne’s married arguments simply for their own benefit, leading to a delightful sense of mischief and intrigue that is both more pointed and less malicious than in the earlier film.

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Nevertheless, even Rogen and Byrne finally accept the joke – just as they have to concede that the sorority are “strong powerful women trying to buck the system” – and the most beautiful thing about the film is the way in which this neighbourhood conflict gradually dissolves into a more emergent, provisional and picaresque mode of neigbourliness. Even more than in the first film, there’s a fascination with all the old types of connective tissue between one house and the next – windows, easements, front yard – as well as the way in which they move from contested zones to spaces of a new and strange kind of inter-generational communion that feels like the bromance finally, graciously giving way to the next wave of youth. It feels right, then, that the conflict ends with Rogen and Byrne putting their support behind the sorority, which in turn grows so exponentially that Moretz is able to rent out their house as well, bypassing the whole escrow panic that launched the drama in the first place. Certainly, it’s a bit grating when the film bypasses both Moretz and Efron to focus on Rogen and Byrne’s new house as its final note, but in many way the closing scene feels perfunctory, tacked on at the last minute as a kind of bandaid solution to the most slyly subversive and anarchically joyful Hollywood comedy in some time.

About Billy Stevenson (666 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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