The Barden Bellas are back, bringing more of their instrumental-free singing sass to girls everywhere “too ugly to be cheerleaders” (according to film character John Smith, played by John Michael Higgins). The first Pitch Perfect was a girl-power combo of humor and heart, with just the right amount of post-modern irony and chubby chick slapstick (courtesy of breakout star Rebel Wilson) to keep the audience in vocally-impressive hysterics. The second time out is not quite so fun. Pitch Perfect 2 suffers from sequel-itis, that typical Hollywood malady that mandates all follow-ups offer more, more, more. As a result, we feel overwhelmed by the obvious attempts to pander.
The story sees the sorority singing group stripped of their National Championship title after an incident involving the president. The group, including Beca (Anna Kendrick), Fat Amy (Wilson), Chloe (Brittany Snow), and the others, are allowed to redeem themselves by entering a tough international competition that no American team has ever come close to winning. Indeed, Germany’s Das Sound Machine has dominated the World Cup and are predicted to continue doing so. Filling out their ranks with a new freshman recruit (Hailee Steinfeld) and heading to a retreat to get their groove back, the Bellas prepare for their singing showdown. In the meantime, Beca is conflicted between her role with the gals and a new internship with a successful music producer (Keegan-Michael Key).
Like any good “porn” (sexual, singing, etc.), Pitch Perfect 2‘s narrative is nothing more than a barebones clothesline (group must win World Cup) upon which a dozen delightful to dopey to dreary vignettes and asides can be attached. We get stereotypes in abundance, but they aren’t the unusual, uncomfortable ones (well, they are sometimes, thanks to Higgins’ borderline hate crime quips). Instead, we get the weird quiet girl, the perky newbie, the gender-confused coed, and just about every other acceptable caricature a female-driven entertainment will tolerate. There’s some nice work along the edges (Katey Sagal as Steinfeld’s mom and Bella legacy; Key as a deranged music mogul), but we aren’t here for the acting. We want voices, and in that regard, Pitch Perfect 2 delivers.
This time around, the selections are more pointed, obvious, and on the nose. When Fat Amy (an example of the acceptable shaming this movie indulges in) finds potential love, her rendition of “We Belong” earns an added layer of meaning thanks to the physical dynamic, but it suffers from the same fate that the opening joke (our overweight heroine flashes the president during a rendition of “Wrecking Ball”) does. While first time feature filmmaker Elizabeth Banks (who’s also back as Gail Abernathy-McKadden, color to Smith’s play-by-play) handles the setups with success, her filmmaking follow-throughs could use a little work.
As with any secret society (did you really know there was such a thing as competitive acapella before this movie came along?), Pitch Perfect 2 has ample opportunities to shine a light on an otherwise unknown subject. Instead, it crams in medley after medley, giving the devoted more of everything they want while avoiding anything arty at all costs. This is a slick example of the sports movie, the underdogs rising to the challenge, the established guard brought down a peg or two by the talented if still inexperienced upstarts. Even with their National Championships in their back pocket, the Bellas are offered up as challengers, fighting off the culturally closed off Europeans. We’re not ugly Americans, just unlucky.
With their highly polished pipes (for acappella, the musical numbers feel way too produced) and pert, quasi-subversive personalities, it’s not hard to see why the Barden Bellas have been embraced by a demo starved for some movie musical entertainment. They are rebellious without being too ridiculous, cool without being curt. Besides, Kendrick and her crew can carry a tune with the best of them. But Pitch Perfect 2 can’t contain its desire to top the original. It does so sometime. Mostly, it repeats the formula, and is far more phony as a result.