Confession: I only just watched the original Pitch Perfect yesterday.
I know, it’s like I broke the law or something. But hey, I watched a lot of Glee in college, so — maybe a little arrogantly — I felt prepared enough to dive right into the first movie and watch a diverse assortment of young adults sing and dance their hearts out before making it to Regionals or whatever. While certainly not a wholesale ripoff, fans of the original know that that’s pretty much what happens. Anna Kendrick, as the drily rebellious Beca, joins a motley crew of disgraced college a capella singers and eventually leads them to glory. It ain’t perfect, but it’s fun — the kind of teen movie that wears its love of Top 40 pop and ‘80s underdog fantasies on its sleeve.
Well, if Pitch Perfect was Glee at the movies, then you can liken Pitch Perfect 2 to Glee’s second season. It’s bigger, it’s louder, it’s stuffed to the brim with guest stars, and it’s really not as much fun. Pitch Perfect 2 is a lesson in why too much of a good thing can be bad.
It’s bigger, louder, stuffed to the brim with guest stars, and really not as much fun
Pitch Perfect 2 picks up three years after the first movie. The Barden Bellas, at the top of their game as Barden University’s premier all-girl a capella group, is giving a special performance for Barack and Michelle Obama at Lincoln Center. Let’s just say a mishap occurs that effectively destroys the Bellas’ reputation, and once again the group is put on the road to redemption. It’s familiar territory; how will these misfits win it all when the deck is stacked against them? Obviously by winning an international a capella competition that no American has ever won before, that’s how! We’ve got the glee club equivalent of Rocky IV here!
Of course, we all know that they will in the end, but the actual getting there is formula by now. It’s the defeat-defeat-harmony-victory cycle. But this time, with Elizabeth Banks in the director's chair, it's clear there's more money to play around with. Where once the Bellas faced off against fellow college nerds, now they grapple with singing German shock troops and the actual Green Bay Packers.
Raising the stakes by raising the production values is a problem that beset Glee early on, too. No expense has been spared, from wardrobe to talent to the numerous set pieces, but it only serves to dress up the fact that, plot-wise, we’ve been there and done that. Some performances literally only happen because the movie needs a flashier way to have people sing at each other. At one point, the Bellas wind up at a secret, underground singing competition because David Cross, as a rich, eccentric a capella fan, loves inviting groups to his performance dungeon. It’s a bizarre bit of fan service for those who loved the Riff-Off in the original, but the whole conceit breaks down the more Banks throws at it. If you step even a toe outside of the film’s bubble of absurdity, you’ll find yourself asking: What am I really getting out of Packers linebacker Clay Matthews singing "Bootylicious"? Why is he in this movie?
The film makes a vague attempt to treat its central characters like human beings, mostly by focusing on what comes next for them in a post-Bellas world. Since most of the Bellas are college seniors, they’ll all have to face the real world eventually. Beca, already on her way to becoming a music producer, starts an internship at a studio headed up by Keegan-Michael Key. Key, as a no-nonsense, high-maintenance producer, is about as real as the film gets, and he’s a hilarious breath of fresh air. It’s Key's character, in fact, who asks Beca to stop focusing on a capella and start making original music. Chloe (Brittany Snow) is stuck in a rut, having held herself back in college for three extra years to stay with her beloved Bellas. Meanwhile, scene stealer Bumper (Workoholics’ Adam DeVine) is trapped at Barden as a security guard after a failed shot at the sort-of big time.
The movie doesn’t let the characters dwell on the future for too long, though. There’s always a show-stopping number to perform or montage to muck through. But all that spectacle doesn’t hide what doesn’t work. Pitch Perfect 2 just isn’t very good at pretending it’s anything more than fan service, and it’s often not great at even that. The sets are bigger, but the writing is lazier, with plenty of confusing moments that can even get downright racist. For instance, Chrissie Fit, who plays new Bella Florencia Fuentes, is turned into one long, terrible joke about about the plight of murdered women in Latin America, a problem her fellow Bellas just sort of nod at. Elsewhere, Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins return as Talk-apella judges and double down on their over-the-top banter, trading barbs about Jews and the fact that no one cares about Koreans.
In going big, Pitch Perfect 2 forgets how to be funny
But really, Pitch Perfect 2 is bad because it’s trying too hard to please. It’s like the first movie, shocked it became a sleeper hit, basically went, "Holy shit, that worked? Give them more!" It’s the kid in chorus who got a standing ovation last year, and decided to pile on the sequins to make a bigger splash at this year’s big performance, all without actually improving on her voice. Pitch Perfect was always absurd, and it reveled in it. Its sequel packs in even more pop hits, outrageous moments, and big finishes in its nearly two-hour runtime, all at the expense of good comedy. In going big, the movie forgot how to be funny.
I walked out of the theater thinking maybe campy singing underdog movies aren’t really meant for long-running series. I remember checking out on Glee halfway into the third season, tuning in every now and then but coming away disappointed. It lost its magic, and it feels like Pitch Perfect is losing it, too. Which makes me sad for the promised Pitch Perfect 3. With everyone growing up and moving on, where can this franchise go from here?