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In ‘Pitch Perfect 2,’ Weirdness Reigns

Success stories like “Pitch Perfect” and its sequel are cause for celebration, but they can also be a bit of a distraction. They’re outliers. Citing them creates the illusion of a trend in a positive direction. CREDIT: UNIVERSAL STUDIOS/RICHARD CARTWRIGHT
Success stories like “Pitch Perfect” and its sequel are cause for celebration, but they can also be a bit of a distraction. They’re outliers. Citing them creates the illusion of a trend in a positive direction. CREDIT: UNIVERSAL STUDIOS/RICHARD CARTWRIGHT

Pitch Perfect 2 begins, as its predecessor did, with an onstage catastrophe.

Three years have passed, and our once-unlikely heroine, Beca (Anna Kendrick) is a senior. The Barden Bellas, now three-time national champions, are performing at the Kennedy Center in front of the President and the First Lady. Where last time around, we had untimely projectile vomit, we now have accidental, full-frontal, below-the-waist female nudity, courtesy of Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson).

As a result of this instantly-viral embarrassment, the Bellas are forbidden from touring nationally, competing in the U.S., or holding auditions, lest they pollute young, impressionable minds with their scandalous ways. There is, as there must be, a loophole in this death sentence: the Bellas can compete in a worldwide a cappella competition in Copenhagen, where they are somehow not prevented from representing the U.S. on the international stage. Win the world title and get reinstated; lose and the Bellas are totally over.

Along for the ride are girls old — some are very old, like super-super-super senior Chloe (Brittany Snow) who keeps failing classes on purpose because she can’t bear to leave college behind — and new, a legacy, Emily Junk (Hailee Steinfeld) who breaks established aca-rules by performing an original song. Das Sound Machine, a German squad that dresses in the finest Eurotrash fashion, are the Bellas new nemeses.

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Will they make it to Copenhagen? Can the Bellas pull through and win it once and for all? Duh and duh, but who even cares: this is a movie about the people, not the plot. And in the midst of a considerable amount of crazy, what keeps Pitch Perfect 2 grounded is the real bond among these girls as they figure out how to be true to their individual selves without abandoning what makes them a team. Female friendship is front and center. Guys, and their undying love for our heroines, spend most of the time on the sidelines.

The weirdness is at an all-time high. Pitch Perfect 2 revels in its strangeness. It rolls around in the ridiculousness of it all, giving always welcome faces — Key and Peele star Keegan-Michael Key as an exasperated but generous record producer; David Cross as a wealthy eccentric who hosts an underground a cappella competition in a secret room in his mansion; Snoop Dogg, singing a rather lovely rendition of “Winter Wonderland” — plenty of time and space to show their stuff. The absurdities pile up: The Green Bay Packers swing by for a cameo. Improbable sound and visual effects accompany what are allegedly collegiate performances. Beca is spelled with just one “c.” But it’s when the movie doubles down on its wacky nature that it really shines.

This is a sequel mostly does what you want sequels to do: winks at its source material without overdoing the self-referential moments. And yet, there is something missing. It’s not as charming as Pitch Perfect. To borrow from another a cappella arena, there’s no sense of glee.

The original song that carries us through, “Flashlight” (written in the movie by Emily Junk, written in real life by Jessie J, Sam Smith, Sia, Christian Guzman and Jason Moore) isn’t a strong enough number to tie the movie together. It’s not a surprise that someone like Emily, who we know is obsessed with singing, would write her own music; it lacks the “wait, did she just…” that you felt when Beca showed up to auditions unprepared to sing Kelly Clarkson and busted out “Cups” instead. And for some reason, the mash-ups don’t click this time around, even though (or perhaps because) the riff-off in Pitch Perfect 2 has higher production values and goofier, glitzier cameos.

Not to mention the real weakness of the sequel, a flaw that also plagued the first installment: race jokes that don’t pay off. One new character is from Guatemala and, as far as I could tell, literally did not say anything that was not about human trafficking, cheating death, or other too-real hardships she left behind when she fled to America. She’s been abducted for money, isn’t that hilarious? Our commentators, Banks and John Michael Higgins, aren’t supposed to be paragons of political correctness, but unfortunately the world competition gives them the platform to crack bigoted one-liners about people from all over the globe that are all about as mediocre as hoping a Latina girl should “backflip right over the fence into Mexico.”

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Fat Amy’s weight is still — still! — offered up for laughs; when she finally gets a big, romantic kiss, she and the lucky guy basically lick each other from ear to ear. Sure, it’s a comedy and it’s only a joke, but would a movie-ending kiss between Anna Kendrick and Skylar Astin look like that?

Returning screenwriter Kay Cannon was a writer on 30 Rock, which explains why so much of the humor is bonkers. Elizabeth Banks directs, produces and reprises her role as half of an a cappella commentator duo (her partner, an avowed misogynist, cites Fat Amy’s slip-up at the Kennedy Center as proof that “women shouldn’t go to college.”) So just take a second to soak in that good news: a movie, lifted up by the talents of its predominately female cast, directed, produced and written by women, could be one of the big blockbusters of the summer.