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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Review: Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)

* *

Director: Elizabeth Banks
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson

I'm almost loath to review Pitch Perfect 2 because female filmmakers get so few opportunities in general that when one makes a bad movie it almost seems like that casts a pall over all of them. However, given that Pitch Perfect 2 made $183 million against a production budget of $29 million, its financial success may do more to open doors than the artistic success of better films with female directors behind them. I'm not suggesting that this movie isn't funny - it is; I laughed quite a bit, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a film with enough actual story to cover maybe 45 minutes, stretched out to a shapeless and messy 115. Of course, I feel like a lot of films have the "too many detours, not enough getting to the point" problem, which makes me think that teachers ought to play the audio clip of Milhouse van Houten whining, "When are they going to get to the fireworks factory?" every 15 minutes or so during screenwriting classes.

Four years have passed since the events of Pitch Perfect and the Bellas are now three-time Nationals champions who have scored an invitation to perform at the Kennedy Center for President Obama on his birthday. When the performance ends in disaster after Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) accidentally flashes Obama and the audience, the Bellas are suspended from performing and from recruiting any new members, which is a problem because the majority of the group is about the graduate. The only way for the group to be reinstated is for them to win the World a cappella championship, a title which has never before been claimed by an American group and which is expected to be won by the German team Das Sound Machine. While "super" senior Chloe (Brittany Snow), who has evaded graduation on multiple occasions so that she can remain in the group, focuses on getting the group, which now includes freshman student Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) who is allowed in despite the recruiting ban because she's a legacy Bella and sought out membership, ready for the competition, fellow senior Beca (Anna Kendrick) is busy putting her ducks in a row for her post-college future. Wanting to make her dream of becoming a music producer come true, she's secretly started an internship at a recording studio, where she quickly makes a good enough impression on her boss that he invites her to let him listen to some of her demos.

Beca is disappointed, however, when her demos fail to impress and her heart isn't really in it as the rest of the Bellas struggle to get it together to go up against Das Sound Machine. Although the "big competition" is the narrative's raison d'etre, the film has surprisingly little interest in it and devotes all of the time between the first mention of the World's and the team's arrival at the World's to various hijinks: an underground a cappella "riff off" which finds the Bellas going up against multiple teams, including one made up of players from the Green Bay Packers; a prop-heavy performance by the Bellas for a group of seniors; Fat Amy's break up and then Pat Benatar-infused make up with Bumper (Adam DeVine); and the Bellas reunion with their former Queen Bee, Aubrey (Anna Camp), who now runs a wilderness retreat used by corporations to promote "team building" among staff. There the Bellas enjoy some montage friendly bonding which helps them "find" their voice so that they can head to the World's confident in their ability to take down Das Sound Machine.

Admittedly, I wasn't much of a fan of the original Pitch Perfect, a film that I thought was trying just a little bit too hard and seemed a little too much like a movie assembled by a marketing team. Although Pitch Perfect 2 has its own problems, I found it to be generally more relaxed and assured than the first, not trying to prove as much but instead putting its efforts into milking as much as it can out of its premise. Pitch Perfect 2 is a really busy film, one that spends a lot of time spinning its wheels for the sake of padding out the running time, although I suppose it should at least be commended for its restraint by not relying too heavily on Fat Amy, the breakout character of the first film. The character is key, and she's accorded her own subplot, but she doesn't dominate the story in the way that she could have, allowing the film to maintain some semblance of being an ensemble - though it's an ensemble where only two characters, Beca and Fat Amy, really matter and have actual personalities, whereas everyone else exists as little more than a trait (the enthusiastic one, the crazy weirdo, the lesbian, the new girl, the immigrant with no patience for "first world problems," and a few indistinguishable white girls).

All that being said, Pitch Perfect 2 delivers in some ways. The performance pieces are generally pretty entertaining and the film has its share of laughs. Some of the laughs come from the main cast, who play off of each other with ease. Many of the laughs, however, come from the heroes of the supporting and cameo ranks, including Keegan-Michael Key as Beca's boss, who is frequently exasperated by the young people working for him, David Cross as the riff off host who takes things very seriously to the point of seemingly genuinely offended when a singer fails in his or her a cappella efforts, Snoop Dogg playing himself while recording a track for a Christmas album, and John Michael Higgins and director Elizabeth Banks as the competition commentators whose remarks account for most of the film's playfully offensive jokes and who, like Fat Amy, are used in a surprisingly judicious way, all things considered. Overall Pitch Perfect 2 didn't really work for me, but I can see why it might work for others, and when the inevitable third entry in the series comes along I'm sure that the audience will still be there for it.

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