Movie Review: “Pitch Perfect 2”

Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, Adam Devine, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Flula Borg
Elizabeth Banks

Second verse, same as the first. A little bit louder and, unfortunately, a little bit worse. “Pitch Perfect 2” is so, so very sequel. It finds room for characters who have no business returning for the second installment. It plays matchmaker, and lots of it. Money is not an issue for anyone at any point, even though there are several instances where it should be (these are college kids, after all). It gives far, far too much screen time to Rebel Wilson, and it has some galling product placement (Pantene and Dave and Buster’s, we’re looking in your direction).

In spite of all this, it’s also a massive crowd pleaser, filled with some ridiculously fun and elaborate song and dance routines and enough quality jokes to help the audience suffer through the less funny material (again, Wilson, mostly). The movie’s story structure is nearly identical to the first “Pitch Perfect.” If it’s missing anything, it’s the element of surprise. No one saw the first one coming, which is why it was a left-field hit, but this time, audiences are prepared, and can therefore see every plot development coming down Broadway.

The Barden University a cappella singing group the Barden Bellas, who have now won three straight college championships thanks to the leadership of Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick), perform for the President at Lincoln Center and suffer yet another humiliating mishap on stage that leads to their suspension, and the near-certain demise of the group. There is a loophole in the terms of their punishment, though, that allows them to compete for the world championship, and if they win that, the Bellas will be reinstated. No American group has ever won the world title, though, and they face stiff competition at the hands of Das Sound Machine, a group of two dozen German men and women who look like they were manufactured in a lab, a lab with lots of steroids. Cue the “Rocky” theme.

Those who have seen the first film recognize the pattern. Embarrassing incident leads to ostracism (now on a global scale, as opposed to a local one), which leads to loss of identity, which leads to infighting, which leads to self-discovery and redemption. The biggest difference is that the main source of conflict is not from within (the power struggle between Beca and Aubrey), but from the hilariously stereotypical leaders of Das Sound Machine. It’s tempting to criticize the film for this, but the life of a singing group is one of strict routine, so it makes sense that the scripts would be similar as well. They learn new songs, they perform, and they work on their act. Oh, and if they’re in college, they go to class, though no one actually does that here.

Still, no singing group anywhere on the planet is suspending Fat Amy in the air, ever, so the setup rings false. It’s a ‘cart before the horse’ plot device, where you need A to happen in order to get to B, so you make A the dumbest thing imaginable. Screenwriter Kay Cannon is funny, but I bet she wrote this scene while a studio executive held a gun to her head.

A leaner, better movie was within reach here, and they only needed to cut one thing, namely the relationship between Wilson’s Fat Amy and Bumper (Adam DeVine), one of the aforementioned characters who shouldn’t have returned. It’s a nonstarter, and its exclusion would take seven or eight minutes (as well as the one song that feels completely out of place with the others) out of the film. That may not sound like much, but it’s the screen time equivalent of “Stairway to Heaven.” That’s a lot of time to spend on something that doesn’t work. Have you seen those videos of people trying to eat a tablespoon of cinnamon? Rebel Wilson is cinnamon; she’s best used in small doses.

Elizabeth Banks handles herself quite well in her full-length feature directorial debut. The cast looks comfortable with her behind the camera, and she wisely keeps the camera work simple. (The film’s last shot is a head scratcher, though.) The expanded cast means that Jesse (Skylar Astin) gets less screen time, but the scenes at the recording studio where Beca is interning (Keegan-Michael Key is the house producer) yield some serious gold. Banks and John Michael Higgins return to provide more inane commentary, and while those moments are amusing, they feel like they should be in a different film. The jokes don’t mix with the rest of the material, and no matter how offensive Higgins’ character becomes, he’s still no match for Fred Willard’s play-by-play in “Best in Show.”

The most impressive trick “Pitch Perfect 2” pulls is the two reality checks it provides the audience. Mash-up genius Beca gets a rude awakening at the recording studio regarding her skill set, presumably the first time anyone’s told her she wasn’t the Best Thing Ever, and new Bella Flo (Chrissie Fit), a Latina immigrant with a tragic past, is a constant reminder to the girls that their problems are definitely of the First World variety. They do this for laughs (for Flo’s bits, anyway), but both bits send an important message: the world will not submit to your awesomeness. You need to earn it.

“Pitch Perfect 2” is safe as kittens, which is both a good and a bad thing. It sticks so closely to the plot of the first film that there’s almost a “22 Jump Street” vibe to it, an open acknowledgement that, yep, we’re just making the first film all over again. For the most part, that’s fine, but for a movie that prides itself on sisterhood and the harsh truths that come with growing up, they should have dug a little deeper into the characters, and what makes them tick. Swap out Fat Amy and Bumper for that, and we have an entirely different, and much better, film.