“Pitch Perfect 3” leans into its nostalgia from the very first needle drop: Director Trish Sie’s debut entry into the unlikely franchise kicks off with the Bellas – no more “Barden” attached to that moniker, because college is but a distant, sparkling memory to these a capella nerds now – working their way through an energetic and increasingly desperate rendition of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” This desperation happens to make sense in context, but it’s a feeling that will only spread throughout the rest this mostly limp, tone-deaf entry in this musical series.
As the Bellas amiably chirp through their routine, it becomes obvious that this is no regular performance – for starters, they’re on a yacht, and everyone looks slightly uneasy. Then Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson, game as ever) blows said yacht up, launching “Pitch Perfect 3” into the bizarre imitation of a spy movie, set to the dulcet tones of a bunch of ladies making music with their mouths. It only gets less coherent from there. (Also, that yacht stuff is a flash-forward; it will be back.)
“Pitch Perfect” should never have spawned a franchise – or, at least, never spawned one as formless as its current iteration. “Pitch Perfect 2” saw the majority of the Bellas preparing to graduate college, with Hailee Steinfeld’s Emily introduced as a worthy successor to de facto leader Beca (Anna Kendrick). But Kendrick and company (many of the original Bellas are still present, a pleasant rarity for any franchise, and the expansion of Beca and Amy’s friendship really is quite amusing) haven’t let go, instead yanking a nerdy-fun college a capella group straight into the real world, saddling the series with a perpetual need to get bigger. The second film saw the Bellas attempting to conquer the scene via worldwide competition, a giant step up from the original film’s modest wins. “Pitch Perfect 3” is forced to top that already grasping spectacle, and the result is a feature mostly dependent on a working knowledge of DJ Khaled’s music-making empire.Although its predecessor aimed to push the Bellas into prepared adulthood after one last aca-trumph, “Pitch Perfect 3” opens with perhaps the film’s sole reasonable concept: maybe being a grown-up isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Each Bella is uniquely unhappy, especially Beca, whose long-dreamed-of gig as a music producer has proven to be creatively defeating. At least there’s the Bellas reunion — a lavish event that’s actually just a performance of the Emily-led Barden Bellas, a fresh-faced reminder of everything our original girls have left behind.
Never doubt the plucky spirit of a Bella, though, and when the ladies decide that it’s time to have (just one more) last aca-hurrah, all it takes is Aubrey (Anna Camp) to so much as mention her military dad, and suddenly the gals are off on a USO tour. (Don’t bother asking how they have new routines ready, or where they got all their matching outfits, or about any sort of military clearance requirements, or why Emily is able to leave college to hang out with her former mentors, or even if it’s at all possible that at least one of the Bellas isn’t compelled to leave her current life at the drop of a hat. Just don’t ask.)
The one downfall to the USO tour is that it’s not a competition – except that, well, for some odd reason, it is. Cheering up the troops be damned, this USO tour is really just an excuse for various hilariously generic musical groups (the country dudes, the sexy rockers, the hip hop duo) to one-up each other for a chance to open for DJ Khaled (did you brush up on your DJ Khaled knowledge yet?) on the last show of the tour. The Bellas love competitions, of course, despite the fact that they’re still not so great at them (at least until the final, crucial event, when they get their act together and deliver a show-stopping number). The other USO groups handily shut them down via a high-energy riff-off that leaves the ladies wondering if perhaps instruments are not actually overrated.
Despite the built-in build-up of another competition, the weak premise of “Pitch Perfect 3” calls for some major padding, and Kay Cannon’s screenplay adds it with a series of increasingly ludicrous subplots. Beca, yet again, is forced to grapple with the apparent problem of being the best Bella (a subplot yanked straight from “Pitch Perfect 2,” and made even less believable here). Producer and one-time director Elizabeth Banks returns as her a cappella commentator Gail, accompanied per usual by misogynistic sidekick John (John Michael Higgins). There’s Aubrey desperately trying to impress her hard-ass dad, and Chloe (Brittany Snow) potentially falling in love, plus a damn fine running gag about Jessica and Ashley.
And then there’s Fat Amy with her own daddy issues, care of a shiny-suited John Lithgow, who appears back in Amy’s life to shed light on the wholly unnecessary issue of where the heck a slapstick butterfly like her came from. Blame him for that early explosion, along with the sense that “Pitch Perfect 3” is never able to get back on steady land after such a bonkers opening.
For fans of the earlier movies, not all is lost: Sie’s background as a music video director and “Step Up” series helmer is readily apparent, and what “Pitch Perfect 3” lacks in catchy tunes, it more than makes up for in genuinely creative and rousing musical sequences. The songs might not stick, but the overall effect is as polished as the series has ever been. Some things, it seems, can actually evolve in this franchise. Some of the goofier bits from “Pitch Perfect 2” has been excised, and this latest entry focuses more firmly on the bonds between the ladies after its somewhat mean-tipped predecessor, though it never hits the girl-powered highs of the original. But mostly, it’s yet another unholy mashup of disparate tones that’s never as fun or frisky as the original material.