Film

Don’t Get Your Hopes Up For ‘Pitch Perfect 2′

It's fun to revisit the original's beloved characters, but they don't have much to do.

Only at the preview screening earlier this week did I truly realise what a juggernaut Pitch Perfect has become. At the front of the cinema were five large plastic cups set out on tables. Yep. When asked if anyone could do the cup song, audience members sprinted down the aisles as if they were on The Price Is Right. And then, like a well-oiled machine, five strangers began rhythmically to manipulate the cups.

I’ve used the word ‘machine’ deliberately. Back in 2012, Pitch Perfect became a surprise hit. Like Mean Girls, it was based on a non-fiction book and scripted by a 30 Rock alum. And it turned the inherently daggy intercollegiate a cappella scene into something fun and anarchic: equal parts Animal House, Glee and Bridesmaids. Girls loved it. People under 25 loved it. I loved it.

But no successful movie is allowed to go unsequelised. Hence, Pitch Perfect 2.

How Funny Characters Turned Into Joke Machines

If you liked the first movie, this’ll entertain you. The machinery has made it so. There are ’90s R&B songs, gross-out body humour, female bonding singalongs, showdowns with rival choirs, tongue-in-cheek celebrity cameos, aca-this and aca-that. Jaded commentators Gail Abernathy (Elizabeth Banks, who also directed) and John Smith (John Michael Higgins) are back too, with many cruelly hilarious zingers.

I really wanted to like it – especially as it’s a film written and directed by, about and for women. But I left feeling deflated. Like the curate’s egg, Pitch Perfect 2 is good in parts. That’s because it’s been assembled piece by piece, guided by what worked the first time. It’s a collection of funny skits that don’t so much build towards a climax as follow one another in sequence. There’s still a certain appealing joie de vivre about it. But Pitch Perfect 2 has polished away its rough charm for a slicker brand of humour that pursues much cheaper laughs.

The first thing that bothered me was that almost every member of our hero choir, the Barden University Bellas, now has glossy, voluminous hair that cascades in waves in the manner of a Victoria’s Secret model. They wear fake eyelashes and high heels – even Beca (Anna Kendrick), who in the first film was a sullen, tattooed indie rebel.

It’s dispiriting to see an ensemble of diverse characters reduced to tropes. Remember how tiny-voiced Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) turned out to be an ace beatboxer, while redheaded Chloe (Brittany Snow) discovered her surgery to remove vocal nodules had extended her lower vocal range? Now, three years on, Lilly only pops up every so often for a murmured ‘weird Asian’ nonsequitur gag. Chloe, formerly the easy-going counterbalance to Type-A choir leader Aubrey (Anna Camp), has taken on Aubrey’s uptight role in the group, and her booming baritone has vanished.

In Pitch Perfect, the Bellas’ assumption that butch, handsy Cynthia-Rose (Ester Dean) must be gay was played as a joke about their prejudice. But in the sequel, Cynthia-Rose is merely a one-note (sorry/not sorry) dyke caricature. Same goes for Stacie (Alexis Knapp) ‘the slut’, Jessica (Kelly Jakle) ‘the bimbo’, and Flo (Chrissie Fit) ‘the Mexican’. Their screen time is almost completely composed of punchlines.

By contrast, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) has much more screen time – and Wilson has already signed on for the inevitable Pitch Perfect 3. This is bad. Wilson isn’t a strong singer, which she tends to camouflage by clowning her way through. But her limitations are only too clear here, in an excruciatingly drawn-out solo.

Perhaps Wilson’s smug, deadpan slapstick works well in the United States because it cuts through an American culture of passive-aggressive cheerfulness. Fat Amy was fun in Pitch Perfect because she said what she thought and didn’t find her own body disgusting. But she’s less convincing here as a confidante to Beca, or as someone with real feelings for arrogant rival choir member Bumper (Adam DeVine).

Grinding The Gears Of Narrative

In a film review, you usually tackle the plot first. But that’s not what Pitch Perfect 2 does. Considering how mechanically it sacrifices narrative logic to fit in more gags, it’s ironic that the villains of this film are a fascistic German a cappella group called Das Sound Machine.

Pitch Perfect 2 is nowhere near as bad and pointless a sequel as, say, Machete Kills or Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. And it doesn’t yet have the hallucinatory airtightness you experience in such long-running franchises as Fast and Furious, Step Up, TransFormers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which have long since stopped making sense as standalone films. It’s more like The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: revisiting an endearing setting and characters without really giving them much to do.

In the first film, the Bellas were underdogs. (Underbitches? Underpitches?) They defeated the arrogant, all-male Treblemakers because of their female solidarity and because Beca’s pop mash-ups were innovative in the staid a cappella scene.

Now, they’re three-time national champions, and everyone’s doing mash-ups, so the film has to find a way to make them underdogs again. Enter Fat Amy with a wardrobe malfunction so disreputable the Bellas are banned from domestic competition and touring. However, they can overturn the ban if they win the world a cappella championship in Copenhagen… where Das Sound Machine are the hot favourites.

Trouble is, the Bellas lose sight of this goal as the film ping-pongs between subplots and comic setpieces with oddly low stakes. Beca lands an internship with a no-nonsense record producer (Keegan-Michael Key), which keeps her distracted for most of the movie, while her boyfriend Jesse (Skylar Astin) hangs around supportively. The Bellas’ struggles to regain their confidence and rejuvenate their sound come across as oddly trivial. There’s absolutely no tension surrounding whether they’ll make it to Copenhagen, and the other choirs they’ll also have to defeat there.

At least Flula Borg and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (who’s Danish) make a meal of their cartoonish villain roles, superciliously trash-talking the Bellas and menacingly Euro-rapping (what a missed opportunity that they never sing The Real McCoy!).

The film’s strongest plotline focuses on an enthusiastic newbie, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), whose mother (Katey Segal) was a legendary Bella. Emily represents both the group’s proud history and the freshness it’s now seeking. And her disappointment at how far the Bellas have fallen is metatextual, because I was disappointed in them too.

Pitch Perfect 2 represents a passing of the torch – Beca’s busily planning post-college life, while Chloe fears losing her identity as a Bella. But the machinery of this franchise already seems to be breaking down. I’m not gonna miss it when it’s gone.

Pitch Perfect 2 is in cinemas now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.