Convoluted, Tone-Deaf Pitch Perfect 2 Can’t Hit the High Notes of Original

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Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

The opening scenes of Pitch Perfect 2, the next entry in the expanding Pitch Perfect film series – the Pitch Perfect cinematic universe? – feel quite a bit like the opening scenes of the original film, familiar and frisky enough to lift the hopes and spirits of its audience, before crushing them with a literal and figurative wrecking ball. There’s the big performance (a Kennedy Center-set showstopper for President Barack Obama, who appears in hilarious stock footage), a catchy routine (this time, set mostly to Kesha’s “Timber”), extremely sparkly outfits, and all of our beloved Barden Bellas (well, mostly, we’ve lost a few to graduation and probably also contract negotiations). Look, there’s even a Bella swinging from a Miley Cyrus-styled wrecking ball! What mirth! What joy! What…what?

Pitch Perfect memorably kicked off with another big Bellas performance that went topside when leader Aubrey (Anna Camp) tossed her cookies all over the front row (and, to be honest, probably a bit beyond). No one throws up during the opening of Pitch Perfect 2, but that wrecking ball gag goes south (literally) when Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) loses her costume and subsequently flashes the President (and everyone else). The Bellas, riding high from three years of big wins, are suddenly tossed back to Earth, embroiled in something called “Muffgate,” and desperate to recapture their old glory. It sounds familiar, like so many sequels do, but while Pitch Perfect 2 boldly cribs from its predecessor, it’s unable to capture even a fraction of the first film’s charm. It’s mostly low, flat notes.

The so-called Muffgate soon becomes a viral hit and a national scandal that lands the Bellas (including returning stars Anna Kendrick and Brittany Snow) all over the news, the subject of derision and a lot of bad jokes. Although the film appears to be attempting to skewer the media’s reaction to body-shaming scandals (mostly bad), the joke doesn’t stick, and instead the film adopts the same bad attitude it’s attempting to mock. It’s a bad way to start a film that’s so female-friendly, with a longform bit about how the most terrifying thing in the world is a woman’s vagina. That girl power message is continually knocked about by plenty of off-kilter and off-color jokes that fail to workably imitate the often very weird appeal of the first film (remember? the one with all the vomit and the girl whispering about setting fires for fun?).

Once the Bellas return to school after a summer off – the film has a loosey-goosey take on time, but Fat Amy does make an off-hand mention about how the scandal has legs even months after it occurred, and it makes sense that the Kennedy Center performance would take place near the end of the school year – they’re promptly suspended, simply because they’re embarrassing to Barden. Yet, despite their suspension, the Bellas are still allowed to compete at the Worlds, they keep their swanky sorority house-styled abode, no one else at Barden ever makes mention of their punishment, and it never has any other repercussions. Even the big sticking point – that they can’t recruit new members – doesn’t hold, thanks to an arcane rule that doesn’t allow them to turn away legacies.

Enter apple-cheeked Hailee Steinfeld, a Bella legacy who arrives at Barden, eager to join up with her supposed brethren (for someone so obsessed with the Bellas, Steinfeld’s Emily seems oddly unaware of Muffgate) and get to singing. It all sounds a bit like the first film, but instead of taking that very workable plotline and blowing it out into something bigger and peppier, the Elizabeth Banks-directed and Kay Cannon-penned feature piles on strange complications and needless distractions to inflate the film. There’s zero reason why the Bellas need to be suspended, and it does nothing to aid their comeback. The film’s trailers have made plenty of mention of the repeated failure of American teams to win the Worlds competition, which could have quite feasibly framed up a film that just feels convoluted.

Both Pitch Perfect and its sequel feature subplots centered on Beca’s (Kendrick) apparent indifference to the Bellas, a choice that made sense previously, but one that now makes Kendrick’s character – the supposed protagonist of the entire film – feel ickily unlikable in this new incarnation. Pitch Perfect 2 has upgraded Beca’s conflict, saddling her with an internship at a local music studio (none of the Bellas ever appear to go to class) headed up by Keegan-Michael Key, a new gig that only refocuses her ambition to be a music producer. (There’s even a subplot within the subplot, involving Snoop Dogg, who is recording a Christmas album at the studio, it’s one of many baffling and pointless celebrity cameos that dot the film.)

At least the film’s copious musical sequences retain the pop and pizzazz of the original, and the Bellas really are better than ever and there’s little debate whether or not they’ll put on an all-star performance at the Worlds that speaks to high level of their talent. (It also doesn’t hurt that their main competition, the German team, isn’t actually very good, even though the audience is expected to be dazzled by their large number and robotic dance moves.) Although the fluidity between narrative and musical breakdowns is lacking – an entire sing-off takes place in David Cross’ basement, presumably because why the fuck not – and the film tries to shoehorn in non-performance musical numbers to spice things up. Still, the tunes are catchy and the dance moves are fantastic, but even the most high note-hitting numbers can’t save a sequel that’s lesser than the original by every other metric.

The Upside: The song-and-dance sequences are excellent, Rebel Wilson gives it her all.

The Downside: A bafflingly convoluted plotline, piles of unfunny (and occasionally offensive) jokes, phoned-in performances from the majority of the cast, pointless celebrity cameos, totally fails to retain the charm of the original.

On the Side: Rebel Wilson infamously wanted Demi Lovato to join the cast of the film. She didn’t.

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