Neighbors 2 vs. Jane Austen Redux

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising
Seth Rogen offers vulgar ridicule, while Whit Stillman produces humane social satire.

So Occupy Wall Street finally comes to the big screen, but in an unexpected disguise, as Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, a carnival combining Millennial social movement and mob mentality. Canadian comic actor Seth Rogen retools his 2014 hit by translating youth privilege and entitlement into ridicule of conservative alarm. Suburbanite yuppies Mac and Kelly Radner (Rogen and Rose Byrne) go into panic once again when the fraternity house next door becomes home to bratty Kappa Nu sorority girls. Even when the Radners enlist help from Teddy (Zac Efron), the previous bad tenant, the house remains a pigsty of post-Boomer recklessness where college kids act out their appetites without restraint.

Neighbors 2 is designed, rather cleverly, to tickle indulgent parents as well as self-indulgent kids (picking off two target audiences at once). Rogen and director Nicholas Stoller satirize outdated morality and pitiable decorum by having their characters emulate Occupy Wall Street shenanigans. An honest satirist could have gone deeper into not-in-my-backyard homeowners who profess liberal attitudes but are secretly envious and covetous, except that Rogen (also one of the co-writers) specializes in infantilism, not adult ambivalence. So he teases liberals by uncovering their worst nightmare: that in some part of their child-rearing, property-owning maturity, they are exactly as scared and intolerant as conservatives.

Neighbors 2 is one of those brain-melters that deceive conservatives who are intent on believing that Hollywood simply wants to entertain them — despite going against everything conservatives say they stand for. Look past the frat-boy pratfalls passing as frat-girl humor (there’s diversity for ya) and note this film’s topsy-turvy post-feminism. The cast of nubile agitators, led by Chloë Grace Moretz, Selena Gomez, and Kiersey Clemons, are not just off-campus bunnies but mouthy examples of overly aggressive prerogative. They push the current university phenomenon of “safe spaces” so far that the spring-break absurdity is sometimes deceptively funny.

Love & Friendship is the most difficult kind of film to make these days — a humane social satire. Where is there today a Tom Wolfe to pinpoint the bonfire of banalities that pass for smartness in this age when elites all bray the same opinions and conform to the same orthodoxies? Going back in time allows Stillman to address how arrogance outstrips knowledge and temerity overruns fairness. The avaricious Susan and enabling Alicia can be mistaken for heroines only by power- and fame-hungry viewers who are accustomed to seeing the media glorify all manner of treachery. Susan and Alicia’s comradeship regarding the notion of “love” is primarily conveyed through the actresses’ maturity (Beckinsale’s narcissistic tan, Sevigny’s aged disgust); their faces have hardened or lined since they portrayed antagonistic roommates in The Last Days of Disco. Susan/Beckinsale’s self-justifications and Alicia/Sevigny’s throaty cynicism carry the truth of experience.

Love & Friendship is the most difficult kind of film to make these day — a humane social satire.

Not since Clare Peploe’s The Triumph of Love (2001) has a period comedy felt so contemporary. British drawing-room dramas and comedies are usually all about class privilege, as in TV’s Downton Abbey, which celebrates rather than challenges the new aristocracy. Stillman has never been afraid, or ashamed, to look at the class manners of white people honestly, usually with bemusement. This film’s affected, Jane Austen–style title (the film is based on her epistolary novella Lady Susan) is a play on the niceties that society hypothesizes (pride, prejudice, sense, sensibility) yet often falls short of achieving. In our era, with its ruthless personal and political competition, love and friendship are two dubious commodities.

Stillman is fascinated by the power struggles that go on between intimates, colleagues, and acquaintances. Only Jemma Redgrave’s sage Lady DeCourcy strikes an authentic note. (The “fool, rattle, blockhead, and unintended” Sir James Martin, played by Tom Bennett, is a parody of Colin Firth’s trademark English squires.) Most of these comically benighted characters mirror ourselves. So it’s puzzling to see the critical vogue for Stillman’s caprice; he deserves acclaim, but it comes too easily, as a matter of group-think rather than political discernment. This film is mistaken for Merchant-Ivory British-colonial merriment, the same way reviewers mistook Mike Leigh’s corrosive Topsy-Turvy.

#related#Reducing Stillman’s thoughtful persiflage to frivolity does a disservice to its most cutting insights. Only a satirist could call out those who are “vile, hateful, jealous in our country.” It requires moral wit to expose society’s despots (“You think she’s a genius?” “Diabolically so”). It takes courage to remind viewers that “human love partakes of the divine.” Finally, it is through Austenesque artifice that Stillman can dare describe “America — a nation of ingrates. Only by having children can one begin to understand such dynamics.”

This brings us back to Neighbors 2, where pandering to adolescence works to distance us from reality. Through the women in Love & Friendship, Stillman achieves political intimacy. Most American indie filmmakers become preachy, just to make sure you know where they stand; they’re issue-oriented rather than people-oriented, which makes most recent indie films deplorable and obvious. The best thing about Love & Friendship? It’s never obvious.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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