There was nothing glaringly wrong with Pitch Perfect, the bubbly and disarming 2012 sleeper hit that plunked us into the universe of undergraduate a cappella singing. It relied on a tried and true formula employed by movies like Bring It On, The Mighty Ducks, Sister Act, and at least one season of Glee: a team of plucky underdogs are in upheaval, they struggle to get along, they break down, and then they come together for the big finale. And while it didn't boast Avengers-level box office numbers, Pitch Perfect more than carried its weight, cost-wise, with a decent box office performance and a stunning showing in DVD sales.
Given the film's success, its sequel could have easily returned to that formula. But thankfully, director and producer Elizabeth Banks and screenwriter Kay Cannon have decided to tinker, tweak, and give the franchise a new beginning with Pitch Perfect 2.
Beca (Anna Kendrick) and the rest of the Barden Bellas pick up where they left off — the Bellas are polished national champions performing at the Kennedy Center when disaster strikes in the form of a Fat Amy (the indomitable Rebel Wilson) wardrobe malfunction. And just like that, the Bellas are aca-underdogs again, and need to win big at the world championships in Copenhagen or be dissolved. This also means defeating a seemingly unbeatable German super team called Das Sound Machine.
But getting to Copenhagen and the Bellas' do-or-die moment isn't as straightforward as winning sectionals, then regionals, then nationals. Their path is a little more uneven and winding than that, allowing the Bellas to explore the depths of female friendship, the fear of graduating, and their a cappella group's past by way of wide-eyed newcomer Emily Junk (Hailee Steinfeld). Along the way, we're also treated to soft-boiled romances, hipster work environments, and strange a cappella myth-building.
The humor that fills the spaces between those themes is crasser and quicker than the jabs of the first film, and while the result isn't perfect, it's funnier, weirder, and more daring than its predecessor. And it's a better movie because of it.
Beca is a jerk, and a perfect villain for the movie
The most fascinating element of the Pitch Perfect franchise is that Beca, its protagonist, is actually kind of a monster. In the first movie, her dad, the Bellas, her roommate Kimmy Jin (Jinhee Joung), and her love interest Jesse (Skylar Astin) all feel the wrath of her self-centeredness as she channeled all her energy into getting a foot in the door at a record company (even though the music industry isn't what it used to be) and sulking when it didn't go her way. But Beca's jerkiness seemed to have smoothed itself out by the last performance.
The monster is back for round two, and once again, she's laser-focused on her record-producing dreams. The secrets she keeps in trying to achieve her goals damage the group, and as a result, Beca ends up becoming one of Pitch Perfect 2's biggest villains.
Cynical Eeyore that she is, Beca really drives home how relatively little the other Bellas have going for them. College is coming to an end, but none of them have lined up any internships or jobs. I genuinely worry for members like the soft-speaking Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) and the indistinguishable duo of Jessica (Kelly Jakle) and Ashley (Shelley Regner).
But Grumpy Beca keeps the movie taut, because her negativity highlights how much Chloe (Brittany Snow), now a third-year super senior, and Steinfeld's Emily, a legacy Bella, both cherish being Bellas. For Chloe, the Bellas are the only things she's sure of. Emily hopes being part of the Bellas will help her find her identity. Snow and Steinfeld are both disarming as two different kinds of vulnerable dorks.
Fat Amy, who deserves her own movie, is Beca's only real friend, the only one in touch with what's happening in her life.
Perhaps there's something deeper here: the film acknowledges that despite this group's intimacy and all the time they've spent together, they still don't know each other that well, and that there's a difference between family and friendship. That's more complex than anything we see in the first film.
The humor in Pitch Perfect 2 is more confident
The most frustrating aspect of watching Pitch Perfect 2 in a movie theater is not being able to hear the secondary jokes. There's a pace and rhythm to the humor in both Pitch Perfect movies — there's an initial uppercut ("I ate my twin in the womb" or "You have a little something behind your ear") which is usually followed up by a softer, more subtle jab, be it a facial expression or seven-word afterthought ("Leave it. It fuels my hate fire.")
In this installment, the uppercuts frequently swing into dark territory that sometimes strays into the offensive. For example, Flo (Chrissie Fit) is a Bella from Guatemala who constantly reminds the other Bellas of her tough home life; her personal history includes being sold for a chicken, hiding bodies, faking her own death, and contracting malaria. Cynthia Rose's (Esther Dean) sole purpose is to make lesbian jokes, much like the way Lilly is thrown around just to be weird. The writing has a few moments, but these nonwhite Bellas are often treated as one-note sideshows.
Meanwhile, Banks and John Michael Higgins reprise their roles from the first film as the satirical a cappella play-by-play commentators Gail and John. The swift interplay between Gail and John is where the film goes for the most cackles and is truly at its best. They take turns cruelly needling each other under a veneer of polite a cappella commentary, and the chemistry between Banks and Higgins is a delight.
That said, a home viewing might be necessary to hear those crucial follow-up lines and to get the full effect of Cannon's sharp humor.
Pitch Perfect 2 isn't really about one big, final performance — it's about a feeling
And neither was Pitch Perfect.
Even though Pitch Perfect 2 feels like a fresh start, it kept the best element from the first movie — one fleeting scene that's irresistibly joyous and charming. While there's a brief moment at the world championships that left me verklempt, the scene that truly makes the movie comes much earlier.
It happens during Emily's "audition" for the disgraced Bellas. Because of Fat Amy's wardrobe malfunction, the Bellas aren't allowed to accept new members, but Emily, not putting two and two together, is desperate to be part of this (sinking though she doesn't know it) ship. It's hopeful, dorky, honest, and unashamed of being awkward. A cappella isn't something everyone wants to do, as Beca constantly reminds us, but for this kid, it's all she's ever wanted to do. And when Pitch Perfect 2 is at its best, it makes you feel, for just a second, like you want to, too.