Pitch Perfect worked because it never took its subject too seriously. To the new crop of Bellas, A cappella wasn’t much different than any of the others extra-curricular clubs with booths at Barden’s activities fair, besides the coincidence that they actually had singing talent. It was a gateway to meeting friends and having fun in college, not building a career. So the film created likable characters, accessible outcasts who’d make fun of themselves before others could. For that reason, it was a surprise smash hit and was masterfully gender-neutral.
Early on in Pitch Perfect, the film’s unfiltered and incomparable A cappella commentary team, played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, is repulsed by the rag-tag Bellas taking the stage for their first competitive performance. These are not the attractive, pampered Bellas of just one year ago; this is a hodgepodge. “I wanted the hot Bellas, not this barnyard explosion,” was an apt comparison one frat boy made. He can because he has a reference point, but as an audience we didn’t know enough to spot a difference.
The trouble for Pitch Perfect 2 is now we’re asking the question: Who are these Bellas? The Treblemakers are performing at freshmen orientation, while the Bellas entertain the President and First Lady. They’re more showy and cinematic than ever. It’s like accidentally walking into a Lady Gaga concert, when you think you’re going to see an intimate acoustic show. These girls have read every good thing written about them through winning three straight national championships, and they wear the persona on their sleeves. What happened to the Beca who complimented the Sock-a-pellas by saying, “At least they’re different”? When she and the Bellas go to a car show to scout Das Sound Machine, a German A cappella juggernaut they’ll meet at the World Championships, they’re more spiteful and judgmental than when they used to recognize and appreciate fellow aca-nerds.
Kay Cannon, the writer whose reputation is upheld by the first film not by the second, moves the story forward three years after the first one ended. Beca, Amy and the rest are seniors now, though only Beca is worried about finding a job (the problem at the heart of the plot). Brittany Snow is back, which is great for casting but feels like a really sad story for her character, Chloe, who’s scared to leave college. Cannon found an entertaining way to filter Anna Camp’s character, Aubrey Posen, into the new installment, so why couldn’t she do the same for Snow? Cannon’s choice to circle back around to Beca’s initial conflict — an urgency to skip college and start building a resume as a music producer — is a good one, but poorly executed. Cannon doesn’t fully commit to it, so it leaves Anna Kendrick on an island by herself. Even when she’s together with the Bellas, her head is in a different place. It’s a good piece of acting but not entertaining.
Instead, Cannon goes all-in on Rebel Wilson. Wilson was hilarious in the first movie, but when her jokes don’t hit like they did before, it starts to look like she’s overwhelmed by her story. What I guess is supposed to be her big scene, a love ballad to ask Bumper’s forgiveness for what we’re supposed to believe is a serious relationship, is a big miss. It works in a musical, but, as my girlfriend astutely observed after we saw this movie, the franchise isn’t a musical — it’s a film about college girls who are in a musical group. Cannon makes this Wilson’s picture, which is misguided.
For the rest of the Bellas, their self-aware jokes are recycled and their characters don’t go deeper into anything. The new addition, Hailee Steinfeld, isn’t as likable as casting wants her to be either.
Here’s the good news. Here’s why you and I still like this movie despite all the criticism: It’s still really fun. The music is still great. Anna Camp is really entertaining as a corporate retreat counselor. There’s still funny moments coming out of unexpected places. There’s a terrific riff-off that includes some of the Green Bay Packers. There’s Keegan-Michael Key as a jumpy music producer. And Gail and John are as good as ever.
“Pitch Perfect 2”: ★★