Same Old Song, by David Bax
If you were, say, someone who found 2012’s Pitch Perfect to be a cheap, shrill and cynical sketch of a movie attempting to coast by on attitude instead of substance, you’ll find the prologue of its sequel, Elizabeth Banks’ Pitch Perfect 2, to be something of litmus test. The scene depicts a performance by our heroes, acapella group the Barden Bellas, and culminates in a character played by Rebel Wilson named Fat Amy (that name isn’t any funnier this time around) accidentally flashing President Obama and the First Lady. So, right off the bat, it’s clear that the change in directors has not led to an increase in subtlety. The jokes in the scene whip back and forth between the embarrassing cringers of the first movie (apparently acapella singers are “too ugly” to be cheerleaders; also, something about Jews that I didn’t bother to remember) and some genuine laughs (there’s a sight gag involving Apple’s Garageband software that I guffawed at; and I do have to admit that the stock shots of the Obamas make for good reactions). By the time we arrive at the apex of the scene, my first-blush appraisal was a half-hearted “minor improvement.” Some of the ensuing film is better than that and some of it worse but the initial assessment pretty much holds for the duration.
It doesn’t matter what the plot is but here’s what the plot is. After that disastrous performance leads to a scandal that screenwriter Kay Cannon groaningly dubs “Muffgate,” the Bellas are banned from recruiting or performing, with the exception, for some reason, of a slot in a worldwide acapella competition held in Copenhagen. When asked if she knows where Copenhagen is, Bella leader Chloe (Brittany Snow) says, “No, I failed maps,” which is legitimately hilarious – credit where credit’s due. So the team’s sole purpose is to train for and win this competition. Oh, and they also recruit a new member (Hailee Steinfeld), which they were expressly told not to do and which never becomes a plot point.
It may not be an original premise but a lack of storyline innovation is the least of Pitch Perfect 2’s problems. As in the first installment, the most troublesome aspect is the desperately caustic and unfunny humor. The movie is full of hipster racism (“No one cares about the Koreans”) and its cousins, hipster sexism and hipster sizeism. And is there a more worn-out trope in comedy today than making fun of “gingers”? First off, this is America and we say “redheads.” Second, that South Park episode is ten years old now. Put it to bed. When the movie is not trying to be ironically shocking by dismissing whole groups of people at once, it’s content to just generally wallow in the type of comedy where everyone’s mean to everyone else. What’s surprising about these strains of humor is that so many of the lines come directly from Banks’ character. She does a solid job behind the camera but the Pitch Perfect films may represent her lowpoint in front of it.
Banks, to her credit, carries over the better aspects of the previous film as well. The performance set-pieces are welcome in large part simply because they provide a respite from the terrible jokes. For these segments, the film sets aside its self-conscious detachment and has straightforward, unabashed fun. The actors sing and dance while Banks cuts and edits for maximum joy.
We also get something we didn’t in the first film. While Pitch Perfect wove some humane and observant depictions of genuine female friendship throughout, this time we get an entire chunk of time dedicated to that alone. The section of the film where the Bellas go on a weekend retreat to train without distraction and rediscover their “voice” sets the rest of the plot aside and focuses with warmth and patience on the characters and their relationships. It’s the best part of the movie and the main reason I consider it an improvement.
Of course, eventually Pitch Perfect 2 has to go to Copenhagen and return to its plot. It hurts to be yanked back into business as usual. Maybe the third movie in this series can get rid of story altogether and just be a hangout film where the characters alternate between sharing their feelings and singing songs together. I know I’d watch the hell out of it. In the meantime, we’re stuck with the acapella version of D2: The Mighty Ducks, only not as funny.