At the climax of Pitch Perfect 2, the Elizabeth Banks directed sequel to 2012’s surprisingly successful a capella comedy, the camera steals its way into the dressing room of Das Sound Machine, the ruthlessly talented German fishnets and leather clad antagonists who stand in the way of the Barden Bellas’ shot at winning the World Championships in Copenhagen. Written on a mirror in the background is a single word: “Sieg!” It is never expressly mentioned, and the bottom half of the mirror is obscured by bodies, so its inevitable followup is never seen. Still, the implication is clear: they’re German, so they’re Nazis. Isn’t that funny?
Such is the level of sophistication in this airless, artless and broadly laughless cash grab of a sequel that begins with the Bellas falling from grace after a disastrous performance for the President turns them into a national laughingstock. A loophole allows them to contend in the World Championships anyway, which sets up an essentially identical underdog plot as Beca (Anna Kendrick), Chloe (Brittany Snow), Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) and the rest of the crew, alongside newcomer Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) must find a way to reignite their spark and rediscover their performing confidence before they are summarily humiliated by their Teutonic rivals.
The original Pitch Perfect, also written by Kay Cannon, benefitted from some strong cultural timing, as years of Glee and competition shows like The Sing-Off made the vocal cover song genre ripe for the big screen. It was not the sort of movie that would change lives, but the charm of its cast and the emerging star power of Kendrick made for a breezy, enjoyable romp. The second time around, though, the jokes do not land nearly as strong, in part because the majority of the situations are essentially identical. Take, for example, the Riff Off from the first film, where a capella groups met to compete in a themed cover competition, which was one of Pitch Perfect’s more memorable scenes. Here, the exact same scenario plays out, with its abandoned pool replaced by the mansion of an eccentric millionaire (David Cross). The Bellas even lose the competition in a similar way, with the newest member of the squad sticking her neck out and providing a good performance against the rules. It is not a bad scene, per se, but it is one that revels in structure and does not feel the least bit spontaneous. And that feeling never goes away, permeating every sequence, every slight tweak on what has come before, putting additional pressure on the way these jokes play out to justify their familiarity.
In practice, though, so much of Pitch Perfect 2 induces cringes rather than chuckles, mostly thanks to the script’s fanatical reliance on racist and misogynist humor. Particularly insufferable is John Michael Higgins, whose blustery, 1950’s chauvinist announcer returns from the first film, only to wear out his welcome in the opening scene. Equally tiring is new character Flo (Chrissie Fit), a Guatemalan refugee and walking privilege checker who constantly undercuts the girls’ problems by repeating the same joke over and over again. It is surely designed to be ironic, but the jokes have to be funny for the irony to land, and when it plays out as one long, awkward silence, the implications of the humor do not sit well.
It does not help that certain aspects of the plot are worryingly compressed, most notably the romance between Emily and Benji (Ben Platt). It is supposed to be a love at first sight sort of whirlwind courtship, but Steinfeld and Platt have no chemistry, and it feels like they fall in love because the script is telling them they need to. Steinfeld has been looking for a foothold in her post True Grit career, and if Pitch Perfect 2 is any indication, broad comedy should not be her destination. By the time the film finally gets to its final act in Copenhagen, there is nary enough time for a satisfying conclusion. The final Bellas performance is a rousing one, but also a case of too little, too late.
The only time Pitch Perfect 2 is remotely engaging is when it follows Beca’s life away from the Bellas as she works an internship at a recording studio for a demanding hitmaker (Keegan Michael Key). Key effortlessly commands every second he is on screen, but more importantly these scenes cut to the core of Beca’s insecurities, grounding the levity in a way with which the rest of the film never seems concerned. Key’s dressing down of Beca’s mixtape for being just another derivative mash-up in a culture where such things are a dime a dozen is the best scene in the film, a welcome case of real feeling penetrating the artifice, but sadly it fades almost as quickly as it came. If there is a Pitch Perfect 3, and there certainly will be one, it would behoove the creative team to focus more on these moments and less (much less) on, for example, Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins’ insufferable attempts at coming relief. Pitch Perfect 2 has the Anchorman 2 problem; hopefully some day these comedy writers and directors will realize that they cannot just recycle the same jokes and the same characters and the same situations and expect the world not to notice.