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Pitch Perfect 3 is aca-terrible

The Bellas would like you to let them stop making these movies, please.

Anna Kendrick and the Bellas in Pitch Perfect 3
Anna Kendrick and the Bellas slog through one more round of Pitch Perfect.
Quantrell D. Colbert/Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

There’s no non-commercial reason for Pitch Perfect 3 to exist: Its predecessor, Pitch Perfect 2, suffered from a pronounced case of sophomore slump, playing like a cover album of the original Pitch Perfect with one original song thrown in. But by Pitch Perfect 3 standards, it was a masterpiece.

The new third entry in the series isn’t interested in character development or logical storylines or anything resembling innovation. It’s lazy and limp and profoundly weird, and not in any meaningful way a “good movie.”

And yet there’s a silver lining.

The Pitch Perfect franchise has always had a pretty good sense of humor about itself, manifesting in everything from the pair of over-the-top misogynist announcers John and Gail (John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks) to occasional recognition from the characters that a cappella may, in fact, not be the life-and-death matter the movies are obliged to make them out to be.

For Pitch Perfect 3, that self-awareness is dialed up to 10. It’s pretty aca-awful, but it makes a compelling case for its own thesis, which seems to be you people have got to let us stop making these movies. (The marketing campaign for the movie even relies on the slogans “Last Call Pitches” and “The Farewell Tour.”)

And it sure does make that case effectively.

Pitch Perfect 3 gets the band back together in despondent fashion

The first clue that we are definitely not supposed to take anything in Pitch Perfect 3 seriously is the film’s opening sequence, which ends with Beca (Anna Kendrick) and Amy/Patricia (Rebel Wilson) leaping off the back of a boat that’s bursting into flames. Isn’t this a movie about an a cappella group?

It is! Sort of. Most of the Barden Bellas we know from the movies graduated at the end of Pitch Perfect 2, and they’re all out trying to brave it in the real world. Beca is a struggling music producer living with Amy, who’s trying to get her “Fat Amy Winehouse” one-woman show (which she performs on sidewalks) off the ground, and Chloe (Brittany Snow), who spends her days with her hands up animals’ nether regions as a veterinarian’s assistant. The other Bellas are similarly unhappy with how things have turned out for them in the real world, wishing for their glory days as college a cappella champs.

Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, and Anna Camp in Pitch Perfect 3
Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, and Anna Camp in Pitch Perfect 3.
Quantrell D. Colbert/Universal Pictures

The only Pitch Perfect 2 Bella who’s still at Barden College is Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), who has given up writing music in the face of her overstuffed schedule. When she and the current Bellas are invited to perform in Brooklyn, she invites her former groupmates to show up. As they gather at the bar afterward, despondent about their lives and nostalgic about the past, Aubrey (Anna Camp) launches a plan to get the band back together, so to speak.

Her father may never have been much of a part of her life, but he’s a big shot in the Army, and she finagles a USO invite for the Bellas to perform on a European tour. It’s the reunion of a lifetime, though it goes a little sour when Amy’s rapscallion father (John Lithgow) shows up, suddenly very interested in his estranged daughter’s life.

The film positions itself as the end of an era. Let’s keep it that way.

Pitch Perfect devotees show up to theaters expecting a few key ingredients: the main cast, a cappella covers of chart-topping pop songs, great hair, a few cute guys, suspiciously retrograde racial and gender politics, and, most importantly, a riff-off.

Pitch Perfect 3 knows this and messes just a tad with the formula. The cast is all here, but the movie keeps making self-aware cracks about “Jessica and Ashley,” two members of the group nobody’s ever talked to or about before and who have always been in the background. (They get a line apiece this time). They definitely all still have great hair and pop songs aplenty, and although the girls have broken up with their boyfriends from previous movies, there are a couple of cute guys to hang around: Matt Lanter, assigned by the Army to keep the girls safe, and Guy Burnet, who works with DJ Khaled. (Yes, that DJ Khaled, who plays a surprisingly large role in this movie as himself.)

A scene from Pitch Perfect 3
The Bellas are ready to sail away.
Quantrell D. Colbert/Universal Pictures

And true to form, the musical performances in Pitch Perfect 3 are still plenty enjoyable, with songs including Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” Daya’s “Sit Still, Look Pretty,” and Sia’s “Cheap Thrills.” (Some controversy arose from the movie trailer’s inclusion of R. Kelly’s “Ignition Remix” in light of the mounting sexual abuse allegations against the singer; he still got paid, but for what it’s worth, the song is part of a riff-off and lasts about eight seconds.) The showstopper is George Michael’s “Freedom!” which the Bellas end up performing — and here’s the twist — backed by a full orchestra.

In Pitch Perfect, the innovation was livening up old-school a cappella by mixing a couple of songs together. In Pitch Perfect 2, it was the idea that an a cappella group could perform an original song, rather than relying on covers. Pitch Perfect 3, then, appears to be about embracing the rest of the musical equation — instruments — which manifests in the film’s only riff-off. That riff-off happens 20 minutes into the movie — I checked my watch — in what’s both a winking nod to fans (“I don’t know why we keep challenging people to these,” Chloe says. “We never actually win.”) and an effort to get it out of the way.

At first the Bellas resist the instruments played by the bands they’re competing against, but by the end of the movie they’ve embraced it. They’ve moved on. And “moving on” is the goal of Pitch Perfect 3. The film concludes with each girl taking a definitive new step in her life, including Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), who has been silent throughout the whole trilogy. John and Gail voice their astonishment over having finally gotten the “big ending” they’ve been waiting for. There’s a final performance and a montage and a couple of big jokes, and then it’s over. Pitch Perfect 3 is basically begging us not to ask for a fourth installment. I think it’s best we oblige.

Pitch Perfect 3 opens in theaters on December 22.

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