Pitch Perfect 2 could have gone the route of 22 Jump Street and been unabashedly meta about its sequel status and the need to recapture that lightning. Though not as explicitly, it does address these near-impossible expectations, by once again pitting the Barden Bellas against their own reputation. Except that while they started Pitch Perfect at the bottom of the food chain, here they’re on top. In fact, the people they really have to beat are themselves.
Unfortunately, it’s not very entertaining to watch the Bellas misstep on their way to returning to the group they were at the end of the first movie. Despite being months away from graduation, in many ways they regress. Where we want to see the Bella’s bonds stronger than ever, to see their quirks layered over each other in a scene like the best sort of mash-up, instead they’ve been broken back down into one-liner jokes.
That’s not to say that Pitch Perfect 2 is awful, but it lacks the infectious joy of the original. Everyone’s more tired this time around, the smiles more forced and the synergy more strained. A few musical numbers recapture the pep and sass of the first soundtrack, but those moments are few and far-between.
There are some elements of a typical rags-to-riches fame story here: As three-time national champions, the group has become bloated on its own success, partying in their sorority house and employing literal fireworks at even their most low-key gigs. Beca (Anna Kendrick) is just about ready to move on from college, sneaking off to a music producing internship, while Chloe (Brittany Snow) has been intentionally failing classes to become the most super of seniors. One can’t let go, while the other is all too eager to get away–a common theme for young adults facing graduation and the increasingly daunting “real world.”
Pitch Perfect 2 isn’t just commenting on its predecessor–it’s also commenting on how women are often dismissed by society at large. The transgression that gets the Bellas suspended from their national tour is nicknamed “Muffgate” by the media: Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) accidentally shows off her goods while performing in front of the Obamas and the rest of the nation. The entire group spends the rest of the movie basically being slut-shamed for this wardrobe malfunction.
Their only choice for redemption is to win the world championships for a capella–something no American team has ever done. While they’ve clearly lost their own sound internally, they also have external aca-pponents in Das Sound Machine, the imposing German team who impossibly embody electronic music while also having the voices of angels and the costumes of Fifty Shades of Grey extras.
While this hurdle makes for interesting commentary, opening the sequel with a crotch shot was tasteless, the opposite of female empowerment. By contrast, Aubrey nervous-vomiting all over the stage in the first few minutes of Pitch Perfect was an audacious way to skewer the hush-hush attitude around discussing women’s bodily functions. And as you’ll remember, she harnesses that energy later.
You know what else is tasteless? A shockingly high number of racist jokes at the expense of the Bella’s token Latina member, and from commentator John Smith regarding women, minorities, and pretty much everything else in-between. It’s one thing to present reprehensible characters whose minds the protagonists will change, but all of these jokes fell flat at the press and public screening.
One thing the Pitch Perfect movies should always be commended for is how they constantly bring up fluid female sexuality. The Bellas are constantly holding hands or linking arms, Esther represents for the out LGBT crowd (though it’s still unclear if Stacey is open to her advances), Chloe/Beca shippers got a little shout-out, and Beca herself is consistently sexually confused by Das Sound Machine’s fiercely beautiful co-leader Kommissar. Sure, these moments are all played for laughs, but they do a keen job of pointing out the smudged line between so-close-they’re-sisters and so-close-they’re-something-else.
Unfortunately, as a whole, the soundtrack was stronger the first time around: The Bellas’ mashups were still a surprise, Anna Kendrick charmed with her Reddit-inspired “Cups” rendition, and you got the sense that each arrangement specifically complemented its singers. But because the Bellas find themselves retreading old ground or trying to be something they’re not, the Pitch Perfect 2 soundtrack reflects that.
That said! The second Riff-Off is just as infectiously fun as the first, elevating the rivalry from just Barden’s college teams to national champions duking it out in rich uber-a-capella-fan David Cross’ basement. This scene includes some of the movie’s best moments, from Das Sound Machine’s frontman doing “Poison” and the Green Bay Packers (yes, really) falling over each other in their love for country music.
And yes, DSM (ja!) are really impressive. They’re comically stern and over-dramatic, but their rendition of “Light ‘Em Up” is a guaranteed earworm. There’s also a side plot that involves Beca dueling with Snoop Lion, an odd partnership that’s too brief. The movie would have been well-served to see the record internship subplot through, beyond more than just a plot point that doesn’t really change Beca anyway.
Without spoiling it, the Bellas’ final number takes the sentimentality of the first movie–remember Beca incorporating “Don’t You Forget About Me” for Jesse?–and cranks it up several more notches. With everyone else in the world shitting on them, the Bellas have to rely on their sisterhood more than ever. It may not be the most unique plot, but it’s what is key to them finding their sound again.
The movie drops hints all over about how difficult it is to be original: Beca’s music producer boss (Keegan-Michael Key) gently shames her for mashups that any Millennial could make, while Bella legacy and new recruit Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) flubs up a performance with an original song. Pitch Perfect 2 gets it–they’re not going to blow you away the way they did the first time. But just like Snoop releases a Christmas album identical to every other celebrity Yuletide collection, they’re going to keep coming forward with what they do well.