Coming off of a curiously lifeless performance in the recently released crime drama “Every Secret Thing,” Elizabeth Banks does nothing to vindicate herself in “Pitch Perfect 2.” In the sequel to the 2012 college set a capella comedy, “Pitch Perfect,” Banks continues a recent streak of being unable to hit her marks.
There is a disastrous opening performance, full of cringe inducing commentary by Banks and co-star John Michael Higgins, who drops sexist and racist bon mots like they’re going out of style. The desperation is palpable. And this is before the actual stage antics reach their terrible crescendo, in which the gratuitously named Fat Amy accidentally exposes her nether regions to the world. That disaster came on the heels of a string of extra gratuitous fat jokes that play through the opening credits. Too much, too soon, and the movie starts us off with a vague feeling of nausea.
The plot is simple and well set up. The Bellas are suspended from all college competitions, but they strike a bargain wherein they will be reinstated if they can prove their worth at the world a capella championships.
Exploiting a loophole that doesn’t ban them from all competition or actually strip them of the title, the rest of the film then is about the suddenly out-of-sync Bellas looking to rediscover their rhythms with one another, while basically playing out the formula for “Mighty Ducks 2.” Well, okay. “Pitch Perfect 2’s” Iceland is an unstoppable juggernaut from Germany known as Das Sound Machine, who get all of the choice cuts, and wear some pretty stellar black sheer dress shirts. We’re in good shape, with the stakes very high and a villain established. Now we just need the characters to carry us home.
I was pretty fond of most of the characters by the time the first film ended so I figured I wouldn’t mind seeing them again. I couldn’t wait to revisit Anna Kendrick’s Beca, but this film feels almost totally divorced from her as a character. She has been sneaking off for an internship while the remaining Bellas rehearse. The movie forgets her as part of the group for a long time (while still giving her a subplot that adds little value), and she feels tacked on, shoehorned in. It explains the odd rhythms of her character, who is usually snappier but also more succinctly played. Kendrick’s performance feels like an obligation, her delivery more than a little stilted. Calling her distracted and lazy is not something I expected to say, but it’s impossible to ignore in this film.
The focus also shifts to a new pledge, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), a legacy whose mother was a Bella in the 80’s. She acts nervous, sings fine, and she’ll be the hero we deserve if there’s another sequel. Almost none of the returning characters get nearly as much to do. They collectively have a fear of post collegiate life, compete in an ill-fated riff-off, and only do things that underscore the one character trait they have besides singing. I’m not saying this couldn’t work … but here, it doesn’t. I know as little about Legs, Lesbian, the Whisperer, and the new Latina as I possibly could after two movies. These characters were fun to discover in the last movie, but they aren’t any fun to explore (not that they’re explored much.)
Rebel Wilson’s Patricia (Fat) Amy, is improbably the one grace note in the entire film. After being fat-shamed through the opening credits and having the accidental reveal of her nether regions labelled ‘a war crime,’ the movie proceeds to give Amy a genuine love interest in the form of the returning Bumper (Adam Devine). It’s a relationship that gives her all of the power, that makes Bumper submissive to her, and because sex is involved, he goes even further to submit. Amy loves to pretend she’s fighting her attraction to Bumper. To him, any of those winking “no’s” that are actually “yes’s” could easily become a definitive no, and he’s going to make sure that doesn’t happen. Sure, it’s meant to be played for laughs, but Bumper’s reverence for Amy is as sweet and thoughtful as anything playing in any number of rom coms out there right now, and worth noting for that reason.
“Pitch Perfect 2” is far more interested in glib one liners and showy setpieces that prove the franchise will never have the viability of its physical counterpart–the “Step Up” films–but for a few moments there it was, surprising and sweet and inclusive. I’ll sing about that for a while.