Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Pitch Perfect 2 is an underwhelming, phoned-in attempt at amplifying the successful parts of the 2012 original. As a rule of thumb for sequels, going bigger almost always never equates to being better, particularly with a story as niche and relatively well-explored as Pitch Perfect. In the sequel, there are more songs, more characters, and more racist and homophobic jokes than almost any other female-driven comedy that I can remember. What’s perhaps saddest about the attempt at capitalizing on the worldwide appeal of music and, more specifically, a cappella, is the tone-deaf nature of almost every moment in the film not involving musical numbers. The jokes that shine are the ones involving Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy, a character that speaks the truth candidly, without regret. It’s a refreshing voice of reason in a film when many characters do not make sense, both intentionally and for the sake of propelling the story forward. The film oddly misses many of the notes that made the first film a success, growing into an overlong, tonally flat experience.
The Barden Bellas are back, with their leader Beca (Anna Kendrick) guiding the team through three straight national a cappella championships. After a disastrous concert in front of President Barack Obama where Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) shows more skin than expected, the Bellas must recover after they are stripped of their national honors and tour. Returning members like Chloe (Brittany Snow), though, want to find a loophole to ensure they can still compete. Sure enough, no American team ever enters the world competition, because “everyone hates us,” as the returning a cappella commentators played by John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks so eloquently say. The Bellas, then, begin preparing for their new journey while adding some new blood to their bunch of females, most notably with Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), a “legacy” because her mother was part of the Bellas thirty years ago. If this seems like an artificial concept, even Beca addresses that by saying that she didn’t know a “legacy” was a thing. Nonetheless, the group goes through growing pains after Fat Amy’s escapade onstage in addition to Beca’s side adventures at a recording company, headed by an eccentric mogul (Keegan-Michael Key).
Where the first Pitch Perfect had a strong sense of self and narrative drive, the sequel lollygags without ever finding a sense of concise purpose. Some may not see that as a failure or be bothered by its wanderings, but it becomes readily apparent after the film’s first half hour. Most of the characters that defined the first film, in particular Skylar Astin’s boyfriend character to Beca, are pushed to the sidelines in favor of driving the overall story. Yet those sorts of supporting characters come into play frequently and mostly repeat what have been established in previous scenes with the leads, making for a film that grinds to a halt every ten minutes or so. The musical numbers are exciting and the mash-ups will sell plenty of copies on iTunes; even the addition of an original song, which everyone revels at during the film, will also prove to be a hot commodity that Universal can launch worldwide. This accentuates how the film feels so mechanical and insincere, like a copy of the previous entry when it stood just fine on its own. Now that the film has explored worldwide competitions, I don’t see how anything else can be explored in this world.
The most frustrating element, though, is its loss of humor. Where once the film made a mockery of a cappella, it now makes fun of minorities and gays. How intelligent! Instead of making fun of characters and their eccentricities like Fat Amy and her bold-faced demeanor, the film opts for making non-descript jokes about a Guatemalan member of the Bellas who apparently got kidnapped, almost sold by her brother, and forced to eat barbaric foods on her journey to the United States. Because remember, the plight of the immigrant is a joke as old as the sea. Not only are those moments hopelessly flat and painful, but the commentators that dominate the narration of the events (including remarks from first-time director Elizabeth Banks, who does her best with admittedly tired work) only revolve around homophobia and cultural insensitivity. While that could play as satirical if taken in the context of American exceptionalism, it instead is played for laughs because racism is apparently hysterical. I must’ve missed the memo. Pitch Perfect 2 sadly becomes defined by its shortcomings, even as it does confirm that Rebel Wilson excels when given proper source material. I can’t wait for the inevitable spin-off Pitch Imperfect: The Fat Amy Story.
Grade: ★★ (out of 5)