I would so deeply have loved to claim that Pitch Perfect 2 takes advantage of its premise with a tidal wave of bubbly, giddy affection and camaraderie that even I, born and bred A Capella enemy, could be swayed by its sheer cataclysmic force and gallant reluctance to submit to the screenwriting essentials of the cinematic world. By all accounts, the original Pitch Perfect (unseen by me) was an achievement primarily for its low-key, shaggy-dog bonding and unforced, almost non-narrative chill-out vibe. Ideally, in Pitch Perfect 2, singing scenes would double as bonding sequences for characters, and individual moments of plucky, even spunky, post-narrative fluff doctored up with flashy camera movements and zippy staging and framing would be the order of the day .
Pitch Perfect 2, unfortunately, makes the mistake of thinking it is a real film with things like a narrative, and it desperately, punishingly wishes that we accept this unearned narrative fixation from the get-go. The premise – the Barden Bellas, an all-female A Capella group, accidentally cause a snafu in front of the First Family of the United States, and the group has to win an international A Capella tournament in order to get their good name back, is functional and fine. But on top of this, the film piles a pair of romances, inter-group friction about the future of the Bellas, and a secret internship for main Bella Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick) in her attempt to enter the music recording industry that causes an identity crisis and a handful of solid belly laughs from Keegan-Michael Key.
All of which is, frankly, an unnecessary casualty of the need to force the “bigger stakes” card for a movie that is at its best when it is at its smallest, or, at the least, when it is turning “biggest” into a euphemism for “carnivalesque”. The introduction of the icy villains, the German group Das Sound Machine (their name is the single best thing in the whole film), is the only moment where director Elizabeth Banks truly gives herself over to being a walking trapeze act of pure pageantry, the only moment where she abandons the trite pointlessness and running in circles of the story to just exist for a few minutes as a deliberately silly, ostentatious fluffball. It is the only moment where the film approximates a new wave David Bowie/ Kiss concert, and as a general rule, the closer that insubstantial music films are to new wave David Bowie/ Kiss concerts, the surer footing they stand on.
There are some lesser pleasures sprinkled throughout, namely a workmanlike dalliance in an underground A Capella fortress that seems like the skit the film should have been, a scene that also works largely because it gives itself to the moment and relishes in the absurdity of the material. Here, more than anywhere else, Pitch Perfect 2 arrives at the loving but mocking critique of the A Capella culture it has been dreaming of, expressively and buoyantly pushing A Capella beyond itself and running head first into the “let’s pretend like A Capella is a real sport” fetish of the film whilst trading barbs at this very impulse and exploring the ways in which the Bellas are obsessed to the point of absurdity with their own culture.
It is a shame then that the film doesn’t take a lesson from the Bellas, doing seemingly whatever it can to move away from complication and just hang out and sing for a moment. A subplot involving a new Bella is useful only in that it affords still-talented Hailee Steinfeld and the one and only Turanga Leela herself, Katey Sagal, work. It is telling that the film mostly writes this material out of existence until passively throwing a bone to the audience in the final seconds of the film. Much as it does with the A Capella itself for that matter; the eventual throwdown at the Internationals is a wet blanket, and the film seems to agree. The other teams are afforded passing representation, although I do not think it was an intentional poke at surrealism when every single team other than the main two apparently stake their success on the same Journey cover song. Perhaps this was an intentional critique of the blinkered focus of so many sports movies that reduce a collective conflict into a one-on-one battle and throw paltry scraps to the other competitors, but I do not trust that Banks and writer Kay Cannon have it in them.
Largely because they don’t earn it, mind you, and because their comedy chops are neutral and neutered at best. Not to mention self-defeating, moving the film half-heartedly into “naughty” territory as if it is afraid to maintain a sticky sweet sincerity that is for all intents and purposes its best mode. These two impulses collide head-on, and they provide no semblance of fascinatingly combative tone-clashing . Pitch Perfect 2 is a film that has no idea how to treat its characters, and little clue what it thinks of them. It moves between falling in love with them and making fun of them by the minute, and the scatter-shot tone never coalesces into something greater than the sum of its parts.
Which hurts, because it sacrifices the film’s cheerily manipulative identity right from the get-go. To paraphrase my opening sentiment, I would so deeply have loved to claim that Pitch Perfect 2 is inoffensively pleasant, for that is what I – born and bred A Capella enemy – had hoped going in. Yet it is always there trying to trade barbs with better comedians and stick a satire that never lands; the film is always interested in going up to the line of naughtiness and never crossing it, and the genuine qualities of the sweetness are washed away without any genuine wit ever taking their place. That lackadaisical sense of hanging out with friends, of girls simply being themselves and enjoying the company of other females without the script being infected with sudden onset maleness, is a noble impulse, but the film doesn’t have it in itself to actually hold true to this aim.
And as for “inoffensively pleasant,” it arrives at the largest measure of eyebrow raising humor by throwing its “othered” characters under the bus, reducing the Asian and Latina Bellas to monstrously regressive stereotypes and doing little more with the African-American member, who is also a lesbian. One suspects the writer intended to over-indulge in stereotyping to mock the stereotypes themselves and point out how they do not belong in the film. As it turns out, the writer was correct; they don’t belong in the film, but the writer is not skilled enough to pull off the dreaded “use stereotypes to mock stereotypes” card that is just about the laziest and most regressively false-progressive thing in all of comedy right now. These caricatures stunt any sense of genuine camaraderie among the Bellas, positing that the non-white members only belong if they can serve as, and accept, their own stereotypes. Female bonding is a lost art in film, and it could use a greater bellows to fan the flame than half-hearted stereotypes. Plus, if Pitch Perfect 2 is a thesis on the intersectionalities of discrimination, it really needs to take another theory course or two.