Reprising the kind of musical performances, campus high jinks, stinging humor and sassy sisterhood on display in its eminently likeable predecessor, Pitch Perfect 2 remixes the elements and comes up with something even slicker and sharper. As the film’s Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) might say, they’ve crushed it.
However, it’s not like we don’t have notes. With more characters in play in addition to the regulars, returning screenwriter Kay Cannon (a 30 Rock alumnus) and castmember-producer Elizabeth Banks (also making her directorial debut on the feature) have to scramble hard to keep all the component parts in harmony. That means some endearing elements from the first movie, like the romance between Beca (Anna Kendrick) and her tenor boyfriend Jesse (Skylar Astin), barely get a look-in, and the number of cameos from famous faces is beginning to approach Anchorman-like levels of overkill. But none of that will stop this from being a smash, likely to outstrip the $112 million-plus worldwide takings of its sleeper antecedent in every territory.
An a-ca-awesome sequel
The opening sequence finds history repeating itself with an onstage embarrassment. Pitch Perfect started by putting all-girl campus a cappella group the Barden Bellas on the back foot when their leader, Aubrey (Anna Camp), blows chunks all over the audience at the climax of their national championship performance. Here, four years on from the events of the first film, the humiliation is even greater when Fat Amy’s spandex outfit splits in the middle of a performance in front of President Obama and the first lady to reveal she’s gone commando, producing a widely reported-on scandal (“Muffgate“). That mishap gets the Bellas officially reprimanded by the overlords of competitive a cappella’s governing body, podcasting co-presidents Gail (Banks) and John (John Michael Higgins). (The latter’s smoothly delivered misogyny — “Let’s hear it for the girls too ugly to be cheerleaders!” — and casual racism throughout is even funnier this go-round.)
Although the terms of the disciplinary action prohibit the Bellas from holding auditions, there’s nothing in the ruling that says they can’t take on “legacy” members like eager freshman Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), whose mom (Katey Sagal) was a legendary, five-octave-ranged member of the group back in the 1980s. Another new face is that of Flo (Chrissie Fit), a Central American transfer student who keeps dropping references to her horrifically impoverished childhood into the conversation.
With Aubrey graduated and gone, chipper Chloe (Brittany Snow) is now the group’s spokesperson and chief choreographer, with Beca in charge of arrangements. But due to a new job interning at a record label run by a domineering boss (Keegan-Michael Key, vivid in just a few scenes), Beca’s attention is divided, and like the others her confidence is eroded when she sees what they’re up against when they arrive at the world competition in Copenhagen.
Taking on the antagonist function, now that some of the girls are openly dating members of Barden College’s other star a cappella outfit The Treblemakers, is Teutonic supergroup Das Sound Machine, an arrogant bunch of “Deutschbags” as Fat Amy terms them, led by the Kommissar (Dane Birgitte Hjort Sorensen from Borgen), a Valkyrie-like chanteuse, and her simpering if strapping second-in-command Pieter (YouTube-star Flula Borg). As the Bellas are bested and intimidated by them in a series of official and off-the-books throw-downs, the girls start to forget who they are and what makes them special, resulting in misguided stage experiments in light-up hula hoops and pyrotechnics that literally threaten to burn them up. (The unfortunate member whose hair is set alight is butch-Bella Cynthia-Rose, played once again by the magnificent singer-songwriter Ester Dean. Her limitations as an actor are discernible, but it’s still a shame the film doesn’t give her more solos to show off that belter of a voice, apart from letting her sing the closing-credits tune.)
As the above will suggest, there’s a helluva lot going on here plot- and character-wise, and what with extra flesh being put on the bones of characters played by rising stars like Wilson and a romantic subplot involving Steinfeld’s Emily and magic-and-music geek Benji (Ben Platt), key supports like whispering Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), boy-crazy Stacie (Alexis Knapp) and — my favorite — the two girls who are always in the background but barely ever get a line or close-up (Kelley Jakle and Shelley Regner) are left with variations on the same gags they had in the original. Nevertheless, the film aptly feels more like an ensemble piece than its progenitor, which anchored itself more tightly to Kendrick’s outsider lead. Here, she seems much more like one of the gang, an impression cemented by the film’s dominant choice of medium-distance group shots that showcase the actors’ impressive comic timing.
Musically, the songbook is a far hipper, more youth-skewed selection, featuring a lot more new-millennium material, especially in the delightful sing-off scene, which showcases a medley of ditties about butts (and even — shock! horror! — the odd original composition, heresy in the cover-centric world of a cappella). Executive music producers Julianne Jordan and Julia Michels have ensured that every performance is note-perfect and soundtrack-album ready, which rather detracts from any sense of realism: it’s simply not possible for groups to sing this in-sync spontaneously on the first try of every tune, and perhaps more of a look at the rehearsal work involved could have enhanced the story. Plus, unless my ears deceive me, there are a couple of tracks that sound distinctly slicked up by drum machines or perhaps some other non-human instrumentation, and that’s not very “a ca-thentic,” is it?
Not that the franchise’s core fan base is likely to mind much, given what a rollicking ride the whole thing is. With nimble assists from all below-the-line departments, Banks, Cannon and the cast have crafted a sequel that’s edgier, sexier and, best of all, more female-centric than its predecessor. The film should also help put an end to that stupid old debate about whether women can be as funny as men. With a good wind behind them like they have here, they’re funnier — get over it, bitches.
Production companies: A Universal Pictures, Gold Circle Entertainment presentation of a Gold Circle Entertainment/Brownstone production
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, Adam DeVine, Katey Sagal, Anna Camp, Ben Platt, Alexis Knapp, Hana Mae Lee, Ester Dean, Chrissie Fit, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, Flula Borg, Kelley Jakle, Shelley Regner, John Hodgman, Jason Jones, Joe Lo Truglio, Reggie Watts, John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks, Keegan-Michael Key, Shawn Carter Peterson, David Cross
Director: Elizabeth Banks
Screenwriter: Kay Cannon
Producers: Paul Brooks, Max Handelman, Elizabeth Banks
Executive producers: Scott Niemeyer, Jason Moore
Director of Photography: Jim Denault
Editor: Craig Alpert
Production designer: Toby Corbett
Costume designer: Salvador Perez Jr.
Composer: Mark Mothersbaugh
Executive music producers: Julianne Jordan, Julia Michels
Music director, vocal producer: Deke Sharon
Music supervisor: Sarah Webster
Choreographer: Aakomon Jones
Rated PG-13, 115 minutes