Heaven help the next generation of American women if "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising" represents what Hollywood thinks of them. In Nicholas Stoller's sequel to his 2014 "Neighbors," even the with-it girls — the ones too freethinking to join a cookie-cutter sorority — are so dumb they make the bros in the first movie look like elder statesmen.
Smarts aren't the point, of course — the reason these freshmen strike out on their own, renting a house next to Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, is that they hunger for their very own place to get stoned. But in their awkward attempt to shoehorn these kids into the first pic's formula, Stoller and his writing collaborators care far less about creating believable characters than getting to the next laugh.
Those yuks are plentiful enough to ensure a reasonable box-office return. But viewers prone to worries about Hollywood's treatment of women — a fair chunk of whom are young students this film wants to attract — may be laughing less loudly than those around them.
In an uncharacteristically flat performance, Chloe Grace Moretz plays Shelby, who doesn't fit the Barbie mold at the sorority she's rushing, Phi Lambda. She sticks with rush even after learning that sororities can't host their own parties, and must go to frat houses to get wasted. But at her first such party, the rapey vibe is so intense (is a "No Means Yes!" banner perhaps too subtle a clue?) she and new friends Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein) decide to start their own club.
The search for a party house to call their own leads them to the vacant home next door to Mac and Kelly Radner (Rogen & Byrne), who successfully ran Zac Efron and his crew out in the last picture. But how will three girls pay the $5,000 rent? Enter an unlikely mentor: Efron's Teddy Sanders, whose bros have done an astonishing amount of growing up in the two years since we saw them (and, in the case of Dave Franco's Pete, come out of the closet).
Mac and Kelly, getting set to have a second child, have just managed to sell this house and buy a bigger one in the suburbs. But this one is in escrow, with the new owners having 30 days to make random inspections and back out for any reason. Reasons like, say, a yard full of beer cans next door.
Teddy, looking to get even with his old neighbors (let's forget they actually patched things up after the last movie's parents-vs.-fratboys warfare), sets out to host parties so outlandish no prospective homebuyer could ignore them. But as they come into their own as party animals, the girls give Teddy the heave-ho, saying the most hurtful thing a low-IQ stud like this could hear: "You're not like us, dude, you're an old person." Teddy rebounds by joining Mac and Kelly in their attempt to shut the sorority down.
The ensuing back-and-forth assault is often funny, but doesn't work nearly as well as the first film's action.
The movie's neo-sorority villains are not the only brain-deprived characters onscreen — Teddy doesn't understand boiling water; Kelly's best friend is 8.97 months pregnant and doesn't know how labor works. But especially in a sequel that deprives its adult female lead of the comic opportunities she displayed so well in the first film, their depiction here feels like a provocation to any woman or man in the crowd who yearns for more sentient female characters in pop culture.
What: "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising." Directed by Nicholas Stoller. A Universal release
With: Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, Chloe Grace Moretz, Kiersey Clemons, Beanie Feldstein
MPAA rating: R — restricted; under 17 requires accompanying parent pr adult guardian — for "crude sexual content including brief graphic nudity, language throughout, drug use and teen partying"
Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes
Playing at: Beacon Cinema (Pittsfield), Berkshire Mall Cinema 10 (Lanesborough) and North Adams Movieplex 8