I’d like to start off today by telling you a little story from my experience of watching this film, but in order to do so you have to understand something. In the cinema I’m one of those spoilsports who can’t relax unless the rules of the cinema are being obeyed. You sit in your assigned seat. If you have to open something your last opportunity is the BBFC certificate and the initial idents. Unless you’re exceedingly quiet and don’t disturb anyone else you don’t talk. And you switch your damned phone off.
Now, I got a new mobile phone yesterday. I’m not telling you this to brag; I honestly couldn’t tell you if it’s a good one or not. It seems to do more things than my old one and it has an orange back bit, so fine. Having gone through the laborious task of setting it up, I took it with me to the cinema. I was sat in my assigned seat. My overpriced drink was already open. I did what I thought was necessary to turn my phone off. Sorted.
Ten minutes into the movie a phone goes off, playing some pretty awful boy band and playing them pretty loud. I roll my eyes. A lot of people do. It’s nearby. The young woman sat next to me scowls at my scowl and advises it definitely isn’t her. And then I realised it was me. This new phone obviously runs to a different set of rules to my last one and, in my pocket, had decided to turn back on, un-mute and go wandering in the wilderness of YouTube. I was mortified.
And for a little while I assumed it was this mortification that was stopping me from fully engaging with Pitch Perfect 2. A wall of shame had gone up around me and it meant that the jokes weren’t quite landing, the wishy-washy plot was coasting, nothing seemed particularly exceptional. The first film – an underdog story if ever there was one – was a lot of fun. You might say it did for the competition movie what Mean Girls did for the high school movie. It shone a little brighter. It sang a little louder. I have no qualms about saying Pitch Perfect is some great, solid entertainment. The sequel has flashes of this spark, very occasionally. But as it went on (and on), I came to suspect that my enjoyment wasn’t being marred by my own embarrassment. Pitch Perfect 2 simply suffers from the problems that dog so many unnecessary sequels.
The reasons for its existence make (pitch) perfect sense from a business perspective. The first film was a much bigger hit than anyone had reasonably assumed it would be. To make more money the easiest, safest thing to do is a riff on the same formula. And Pitch Perfect 2 plays it very safe, sticking to the Hollywood sequel template we’ve all sat through before. The highlights from the first movie are replayed on a larger scale, the routines themselves are more elaborate (though less memorable), and Rebel Wilson is given more screen time to milk laughs with her Fat Amy routine. There’s another embarrassing set-back for the Barden Bellas to overcome (aforementioned Amy accidentally giving Obama an eyeful) and a bigger competition for them to win (world championships this time, and German outfit Das Sound Machine to vie with for – wince – supremacy). Plus a fresh face for it all to be experienced through now that Anna Kendrick’s Beca has become a seasoned professional (Hailee Steinfeld’s rather vanilla Emily).
Frankly more interesting is a side story in which Beca is challenged by the notion that her continuing dream of producing music might not pay off at all. Interning for a hotshot producer played with uncharacteristic stiffness by Keegan-Michael Kay (AND LISTED IN THE CREDITS ONLY AS “BECA’S BOSS”), Beca finally gets her mash-ups heard. Her boss contends that she needs to find her own voice. Beca wonders, with a sudden chill, whether she has anything to say at all.
This side story resonates so well because it mirrors the movie at large; a sequel that is confidently trying to turn a great success into a franchise, but might not have enough fuel in the tank to sustain itself. It’s also mirrored in the Bellas’ sudden lack of coherence as Pitch Perfect 2 diverts into an extended riff on the “I’ve lost my mojo” routine from the second Austin Powers movie. If anything though, this move allows the film a welcome change of scenery at a fun sort of summer camp orchestrated by Anna Camp’s Aubrey. It extends the second act well over what is necessary, but it also feels like one of the few times the movie is taking us somewhere we haven’t been before.
The film plays its trump card at the end, however, bowing out with something of a show-stopper, in a strange way recalling the crescendo-success of Whiplash earlier this year, but minus the nail-biting psychological intensity. It’s a great move to end on such a high, but it leaves Beca’s story in limbo, undercutting any sense of real progression. No doubt a third movie will counter that sense of unfinished business, but if Pitch Perfect is to continue there are a few things that need to be addressed.
Primarily, a number of the Bellas have been reduced to cardboard cutouts. Black and gay Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean) is a great member of the group, but her only function this time around is to constantly remind everyone that she’s black and gay. You feel she deserves a little more. Similarly, Hana Mae Lee continues to (quietly) steal every scene she’s in as stone-faced psychopath Lilly, but no attempt is made here to round out her character. Most offensive of all is Chrissie Flit’s Flo who apparently exists in the film solely as an outlet for conspicuously weak immigrant jokes. Is it empowering of your minority cast members to simply joke about their minority status, how different and quirky that makes them, and not add any depth to them in the process? There are a lot of missed opportunities here.
Elizabeth Banks’ direction is surefooted for a debut and it’s really no surprise that, like everyone else on the creative team, she’s playing it very safe this time out. But a little more danger and prickliness might’ve been just what Pitch Perfect 2 needed. Instead we have an overlong, predictable yet still enjoyable second instalment that could’ve learned something vital from its closing number. A little originality never hurt anyone. This one just about gets by on the good graces of the first movie’s winning charm, but only just about.
Still, I’ve figured out how to turn my phone off now. So there’s that.