The first Pitch Perfect is pretty much the Pitch Perfect you’d expect – the first one all over again. This Pitch Perfect takes the Ghostbusters approach to sequels, by repeating all the same beats and bits note for note. All female a capella group the Barden Bellas open the film with an act of public humiliation – this time it’s Fat Amy’s (Rebel Wilson’s) extended wardrobe function rather than projectile vomiting – establish themselves as underdogs on their way to winning the nationa– sorry, the world championships.
That’s not a spoiler, by the way. This Pitch Perfect follows the underdog-come-good playbook so closely you can set your metronome to it. There’s the mid-film moment of doubt, the in-fighting, the inevitable mending of bridges, etcetera. There’s even a new plucky youngster to take over from Beca (Anna Kendrick) – the nervous, well-meaning Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), who’s given a perfunctory romantic sub-plot and the promise of a leading role in the inevitable second sequel. Like the plethora of a capella covers performed throughout, you already know all the words.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! I expected to dislike the first Pitch Perfect before seeing it – it’s a musical starring Rebel Wilson, so – but was well-and-truly won over when I was exposed to its charms while supervising a school camp. Sure, it held tight to the underdog formula, but when it had Kendrick’s winning lead performance and an aggressively weird edge to its comedy, I wasn’t complaining about its formulaic features. It was no masterpiece, but when it hit that finale it did what great underdog films do: delivered that electric, cathartic thrill.
Pitch Perfect 2 doesn’t deliver the same thrills. Sure, it delivers some laughs, but its faithfulness to convention feels perfunctory rather than transcendent. Even those laughs start to feel a little tired, especially because of their reliance on ‘ironic’ racism – broadly, deliberately offensive jokes from John Michael Higgins’ and director Elizabeth Banks’ commentators are one thing, but introducing Flo (Chrissie Fit), a Hispanic immigrant whose only dialogue concerns her comically horrific upbringing, feels less like laughing at racism and more like, well, plain ol’ racism. By the time we hit that triumphant finale, the gloss has worn off and there’s no catharsis to be found.
To some extent, that’s deliberate. To understand why, we need to talk about the second Pitch Perfect. The Bellas win the world championships thanks to the performance of an original song – breaking from the apparent a capella tradition of nothin’-but-covers – and this smaller, simpler Pitch Perfect is an original. It’s less interested than the Bella’s path to glory or redemption than the path towards growing up. Moving away from all-consuming hobbies (like, say, a capella competitions), moving towards adulthood. Adulthood being defined by careers (Beca tries to break through as a producer while interning for a production company helmed by Key and Peele’s Keegan Michael-Key) and monogamy (Fat Amy and Bumper (Adam DeVine) get serious).
This Pitch Perfect isn’t, ahem, perfect, but it feels fresher in every sense than the conventional half of the film. The jokes ring out because they’re not merely retreads of the first film, and there’s a core of truth to it. Life is about more than winning that a capella competition, after all. But while I liked this Pitch Perfect, it ends up working against the underdog half of the film, treading on its sense of narrative momentum by reminding us that, really, do we care that these ladies win another big competition? Should we care?
So Pitch Perfect 2 is composed of two films that simply don’t harmonise. If I had to guess, I’d suggest that there’s some artistic tension behind the scenes with one camp – oh, let’s say Universal Studios – demanding a crowd-pleasing follow-up indistinguishable from the first film (a smash hit, don’t forget) and another camp – hazarding a guess that we’re probably talking about Banks and screenwriter Kay Cannon here – arguing for something less conventional, more thoughtful. The final result looks a lot like a compromise born of a troubled production: a Frankenstein’s monster of discrete vignettes stitched together with awkward, ADR’d expositional dialogue.
There are enough moments in Pitch Perfect 2 that work to not dismiss it out of hand. There’s a talented bunch of singers and comedians acting – and singing – their hearts out here. If you flick past this while channel surfing in a couple years (assuming “television channels” are still a thing in a couple years, anyway), there’s enough funny moments to not-really-watch it. But it’s not really a good movie – it’s two okay ones singing in different keys.