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Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: Pitch Perfect 2


The Barden Bellas went from the widely-mocked acapella underdogs of Pitch Perfect to three-time consecutive national champions before this film starts. Led by Beca (Anna Kendrick), the Bellas have been getting flashier and more predictable, but the crowds eat it up - until, that is, a performance gone awry leads to Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) accidentally flashing the Obama family on stage. National laughingstocks, the Bellas are banned from national competitions, but as the reigning national champs, they have one last opportunity to prove themselves by representing the U.S. in the Acapella World Championships in Copenhagen. But they'll face stiff competition from Das Sound Machine, the German team led by Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) and Pieter (Flula Borg), and from within, as the Bellas all get ready to graduate and face a world few of them have seriously prepared for.

Look, did you like the first Pitch Perfect? If yes, congratulations, you'll probably enjoy this one - it's basically the same movie, but there's more. In some ways, that's good. Pitch Perfect was a deeply flawed movie, with conflicts just kind of... stopping, partway through the film, its characters crazy people acting in an vacuum until the script demanded they don't, so there was plenty of room for improvement. But Pitch Perfect 2 is so faithful to the formula that it verges on being a remake. Did you like "Cups," Anna Kendrick's endearingly low-key reworking of "When I'm Gone"? I hope so, because Pitch Perfect 2 has "Flashlight," an original song they sing at least in part five or six times throughout the film, clearly courting those iTunes downloads. This is known as 'The Glee Trap,' when alternative media sales revenue drives story, and, yeah, it works out about as poorly as it sounds. Did you like the intimations of a relationship between callow boy-band cad Bumper and Fat Amy? I hope so, because the two of them carry the sequel's romantic subplot.

The 'the same, but more' aesthetic also applies, unfortunately, to its penchant for hacky racial humor. Funny may forgive an awful lot, but in order to be forgiven, you have to actually... you know, be funny, and most of Pitch Perfect 2's race-based gags fall perilously flat. Writer Kay Cannon clearly knows that racism is considered 'bad' - John Michael Higgins misogynistic, homophobic, racist commentator returns with co-host/director Elizabeth Banks at his side, and every time he says something awful, she shakes her head or offers a wry retort. But I don't think Cannon understands why it's bad, because the rest of the movie is absolutely bursting with some of the most retrograde racial humor I've seen in years without Banks' known nod to soften the blog (it doesn't do that anyway, but that's clearly what it's meant for, at least). For instance, new character Flo (Chrissie Fit), is a sassy Latina whose every single line (and please take that literally) is about how awful life is in South America, tossing off one-liners about malaria, kidnapping, etc.... She doesn't have jokes; she is a joke. The first time it happened, I was actually excited, as Flo necessarily punctured the Bellas' sense of self-importance by pointing out the dangers of the real world compared to their fairly petty collegiate squabbles. But Cannon returns to the 'South America is the worst' well often, and typically with virtually none of the justification of that first time. She wasn't making a point about the insulation of well-off white college kids from real danger, it turns out, she just thinks that South America actually is the worst

Thankfully, there are some positives to latch onto. As in the first film, Anna Kendrick has the effortless charm of a genuine movie star, which is good, because she doesn't appear to be putting a ton of effort into her performance here. Not that it matters; Kay Cannon crafts her a comedic persona that borrows liberally from Liz Lemon, and Kendrick nails it. Rebel Wilson manages to wring a surprising amount of emotion - and coherence - from a series of fat jokes mostly reiterated from the first film. Hailee Steinfeld is fine as sole major newcomer Emily, a budding songwriter who doesn't do well under pressure, but she's mostly shunted off to the side for the returning cast, making little impression. Though, limited screen time doesn't stop Keegan-Michael Key from dominating his small role as Anna Kendrick's new boss, a self-important music producer who steals every single scene he's in. Nor does it stop Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, the Bellas' Teutonic valkyrie of a foe, whose relationship with Kendrick gives the film its funniest running gag. Even at their worst, the Bellas and their supporting cast have chemistry and charm to spare; first-time director Elizabeth Banks, an actor herself, understands this, and wisely gives the performers room to breathe.

Don't get me wrong if I sound wholly negative: Pitch Perfect 2 fires off jokes rapidly and assuredly, and is an improvement on its predecessor in almost every meaningful way. It's just... still not terribly good. It fixes most of the pacing and character issues that plagued the first film, but it doesn't really add anything new to the mix, and it spends too much energy rehashing what people liked most about the original. It's too busy bringing back old 'favorites' to really give Steinfeld much room to make an impression or suggest any hope of anchoring future sequels, and it's too busy reliving past glories to figure out what kind of stories it could feasibly tell in the future. It's still oddly racist and still uncreative in its mashups and choreography, but at least the 'villain' in this one doesn't just leave halfway through the movie. There's a complete narrative arc, if a simple one. It's a victory, of sorts.


Pitch Perfect 2 is out in theaters nationwide today. Written by Kay Cannon and directed by Elizabeth Banks, Pitch Perfect 2 stars Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, and Hailee Steinfeld.
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