Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Elizabeth Banks. Screenplay by Kay Cannon, based on the book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Capella Glory by Mickey Rapkin. Produced by Elizabeth Banks, Paul Brooks, Kay Cannon, Max Handelman, Jeff Levine. Music score by Mark Mothersbaugh. Photographed by Jim Denault. Edited by Craig Alpert. Production designed by Toby Corbett. Costumes designed by Salvador Pérez Jr. Starring Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, Adam DeVine, Katey Sagal, Anna Camp, Ben Platt, Alexis Knapp, Hana Mae Lee, Ester Dean, Chrissie Fit, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Flula Borg, Kelley Jakle, Shelley Regner, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks.
2012’s Pitch Perfect, a musical about collegiate a Capella groups, was a hit partially because it came as a complete surprise. An original female-driven property is a depressingly hard sell in Hollywood circles, but audiences—despite what marketing executives think—are always hungry for something fresh and snappy. It was a modest success in theaters and found a fervent following on DVD, perhaps because at home fans could linger on the sassy dialogue and buoyant performances while fast-forwarding through the ill-advised, Bridesmaids-inspired moments of gross-out comedy. A sequel was inevitable, and so now here is Pitch Perfect 2, a movie that, like many sequels, tries very hard to resynthesize the formula of the first movie, with some mixed results.
In a lot of ways, Pitch Perfect 2 is more of a product than a movie: a collection of lines and moments and soundtrack cues in search of a plot. The original was built upon a sturdy underdog structure, with a hero team so disrespected than even other a Capella groups mocked them. Here, returning writer Kay Cannon has no choice but to go through contrived motions to make them all underdogs again. Humiliated during an embarrassing set (in front of President Obama no less), the Barden Bellas, looking more than ever like a campus organization that are maybe due for a tiny budget reduction, are stripped of their title and their on-campus standing is seriously threatened. Only through a loophole do they find a possible solution: competing in the world a Capella championships and defeating the reigning favorite, a utilitarian and ostensibly soulless German team called Das Sound Machine, who are intimidating bullies both onstage and off. “I’m feeling a lot of sexual confusion,” admits the flustered Becca (Anna Kendrick) during an icy confrontation with the perfectly-toned queen of the German group (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), although it’s another German (Flula Borg) who gets some of the script’s best putdowns.
In theory, this is a decent competitive hook to hang your sequel on, and one sequence, involving an intense riff-off inside a mansion, has a wonderfully maniacal energy (there’s no way I’ll tell you who else is in that mansion, by the way). And Pitch 2 trims out some of Pitch 1‘s less-successful contributions: there’s no vomit gags, for one, and the runner of everyone using “aca” as a prefix to every word is only briefly and perfunctorily kept alive. But Pitch Perfect 2 still has a lot of characters to half-heartedly service and a lot of running gags to refresh, and it feels like those concerns drive everything. Kendrick’s Becca is kept pointedly divorced from some of the action this time, stuck in an existential crisis by her internship under a venal music producer (Keegan-Michael Key, very funny). Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), who shared breakout star status with Kendrick last time, is trapped in her own subplot with the callow Bumper (Adam DeVine) – their headlong romance is funny as a concept, but not really in execution (I’m not a huge Wilson fan, but the weak link is most certainly the loutish and unpleasant DeVine). The script casts around for subplots and doesn’t provide a sense of real momentum. Even an appearance by valuable series alumnus Anna Camp doesn’t bring up the energy like it should.
The other Bellas are a mixed bag. Super-positive Chloe (Brittany Snow) is just pathetic this time around, two of the girls are so nondescript that even Becca can’t tell them apart, and Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean) is simply a source of lazy lesbian jokes. While the mad ravings of soft-spoken Lily (Hana Mae Lee) are still amusing, there’s the problematic Flo (Chrissie Fit), a Guatemalan refugee whose every line of dialogue is simply mean-spirited stereotype humor. There’s also a new freshman Bella, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld),whose chief character trait is that she is exceptionally dull. Steinfeld is a fine young actress, but she’s given no character to play here, which makes the film’s unsubtle attempts to groom her as franchise lead (the established actors have already aged out) pretty bewildering. It makes sense to start rotating in new blood if this series is going to go for the long haul, but Emily doesn’t even seem to fit the sardonic universe of Pitch Perfect–she seems like a freshly-scrubbed teen on loan from the Disney Channel.
PP2 was helmed by Elizabeth Banks, making a welcome feature directorial debut (Banks also reprises her role as one of a pair of very funny color commentators, along with John Michael Higgins). She has a future ahead of her as a director, but the film’s busy camerawork and over-editing occasionally obscure the choreography and sap some of the energy; even the climactic number is iffy when it should be triumphant. It’s hard to blame her for the movie’s flaws, though: despite some funny moments and truly terrific song-and-dance numbers, Pitch Perfect 2 is a calculated encore that feels a little too much like a shrug. It never comes up with a fully-realized reason to exist, but all the same I’m happy that it does. In other words, it’s sort of a middling aca-mplishment.