It’s not necessarily a novel observation, but “Pitch Perfect,” the Universal studio comedy about the world of competitive college-level a cappella, a surprise 2012 hit, is modeled after a classic sports comedy picture. The girl-powered sing-along comedy had the exact same paradigm: there’s an reluctant outsider cajoled into joining a foreign, often “uncool” world (think Jackie Earle Haley in “The Bad News Bears”) and the team sport personnel is a rag tag group of misfits that can’t get it together. Of course the disinclined outlier is always the missing link that helps the team discover their voice and identity. Outside of the too-colorful color commentators — a more contemporary trend lifted from films like “Dodgeball” and “Best In Show” — the surprisingly diverting but enjoyable “Pitch Perfect” followed the classic sports movie formula to the letter. But if the charming and lighthearted original film hit all the right notes, then “Pitch Perfect 2” is analogous to “The Bad News Bear 2” or almost any sports movie equivalent; a rehash of the same song without the inspired melody.
And so “Pitch Perfect 2” suffers from the same stock sequel issues that mar many of this type of films. Without a new world to discover and eventually accept — as the audience did through the skeptical eyes of Anna Kendrick in the inaugural picture vis-à-vis a cappella — the movie is left to ask the viewer to stick around simply because it has collected conversant characters in a familiar, already-established setting and stick them in a new predicament. While this is enough for some sequels, as directed this time by co-star Elizabeth Banks (her feature-length debut) and written by Kay Cannon, all this effort has to offer are slightly new challenges in familiar package.
The plot quandary that sets the wheels in motion is tossed off carelessly like a weak excuse: because the Bellas (the heroine singing group) embarrassed themselves at a national singing championship that Barack Obama and his family attended — cue distasteful Rebel Wilson physical comedy — the outrage and scandal is such that they are barred from competing by their fictional Barden University. But because of some contrived wager with the film’s original commentators, Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins — who apparently also have Dean-like powers — they are offered a hail mary shot at redemption. If the girls can somehow win the world a cappella championship — no American team has ever won — all will be forgiven. But the goal isn’t easy as the Bellas are suffering from college senior angst, wandering interests, and internal dysfunction, and their competition, the fearsome German team Das Sound Machine — seemingly a mix of only marginally funny Teutonic, mesh-shirt-wearing Eurotrash stereotypes — are an impressive and unstoppable vocal force.
“Pitch Perfect 2” has two subplots that attempt to act as the film’s main themes: making it on your own and finding yourself (Anna Kendrick’s character splinters off to get a music industry internship) and finding your own voice (newcomer Hailee Steinfeld introducing an original composition into the mix). But obvious or familiar writing templates aside, most importantly, “Pitch Perfect 2” simply isn’t as entertaining, clever or amusing as the original. Additionally, the comedy sports a litany of run-of-the-mill plot conceits including the old sitcom trick of adding new blood when things get stale (Steinfeld) and having recognizable figures act as mentors to a new generation meant to take up the torch (Steinfeld once again).
The movie’s off-color humor also doesn’t connect like it once did either. The casual racism, homophobia and sexism might be tolerable if any of it was remotely funny, but none of it is. Not to call the outrage police, but the running human trafficking joke about the Guatemalan Bella (played by Chrissie Fit) grateful for anything in life because she’s narrowly avoided death several times over might possibly be amusing if the character was a real person. But the token character exists in the script solely as a comedic relief device to deliver asides about their current dilemmas and reminding all the characters at least they haven’t been abducted for money or had diarrhea for seven years straight. And John Michael Higgins’ role as the acapella commenter from the first film certainly takes a darker, nastier edge as he spouts off nonchalantly misogynistic remarks, while his partner-in-crime, Elizabeth Banks, questions his sexuality.
Co-starring most of the original gang and a few new faces, most of the actors fall comfortably into their one-note parts (Alexis Knapp playing the oversexed hottie, Hana Mae Lee once again as the low-talking Asian) while Adam DeVine seems to be dying to be the next Jack Black.
Banks’ movie not only ails because of an uneven script, but from weak conflicts and from low stakes (yes, even for a light comedy). The movie strains itself to convey to the audience that the Bellas are disharmonious and have misplaced their mojo. But it’s really only Kendrick’s Becca — the coffee-fetching intern at a record label — who has lost focus. If the conceit of “Pitch Perfect” was taking a capella to the next level by mashing-up popular songs, the sequel’s new hook is aiming for the next plateau and something verboten in the world of a capella: original songs. This means the comedy sometimes acts like a commercial for Jessie J‘s “Flashlight,” the catchy but super generic EDM/“girl-power” inspired pop song written by Hailee Steinfeld’s character (actually written Jessie J, Sam Smith and a gaggle of contemporary Max Martin-like super producers).
Perhaps due to its rote, by-the-numbers story, all of the original film’s less tangible, hard-to-bottle qualities are absent: its delightfulness, its playfulness, and its natural charisma. As a director Banks saves all her best moves for the movie’s rousing and impressive final crescendo at the world a capella competition and it’s in this final act where the movie best captures the simple but effective, crowd-pleasing and well-choreographed vivacity of the first movie. It’s a shame then that the entire movie cannot tap into the spirit of the same spark. Overall, the song choices, the execution and selection of mash-ups aren’t nearly as inspired as what came before. It might be just a silly comedy to some, but “Pitch Perfect” took a classic structure, compelling characters and a unique world never showcased on screen before and turned the melange into a winning coming-of-age and anxiety-of-entering-college comedy. Now seniors, “Pitch Perfect 2” brushes lightly on fears of what’s next, but is otherwise content to belt out a less satisfying tune about you-go-girl originality that is anything but. [C]