Pitch Perfect 2

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<i>Pitch Perfect 2</i>

Like most sequels, Pitch Perfect 2 takes the blueprint of the original and fills it with new-yet-similar things. It’s not redundant, and it is still very funny, but neither does it elevate the material it borrows from the first film into something better. Certain aspects of the second film—like the pathological things Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) inaudibly says, for example—could almost be outtakes from the first go ’round. So, once again, the Barden Bellas fight against the odds to prove their mettle in the high stakes world of competitive a capella. Once again, the humor is audacious, subversive and irreverent. Once again, Becca (Anna Kendrick) is the least interesting character in the film, despite getting the lion’s share of the screen time. Once again, coherent plot is sacrificed for musical set pieces, consistent characterization is sacrificed for jokes—and once again all of that largely doesn’t matter because the film is funny enough to get by.

Is it worth analyzing beyond that? There are better films embedded in both films, I would say, and while Pitch Perfect might not be the hill to die on for this particular argument, with a third movie in the works…why not?

There are two main problems with Pitch Perfect 2, both of which stem from similar problems in the first film. The first is that this is a movie that wants to have it both ways: Kay Cannon’s script celebrates Diversity—in the psych-up before their final performance, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) even argues that it’s the Bellas’ diversity that will allow them to defeat their main competitors, a monoracial, super-in-sync, possibly fascist German team, because…America, I guess—at the same time that in practice it treats its white characters and its characters of color or size differently. The white characters not called “Fat Amy”—Becca, Chloe (Brittany Snow), Stacie (Alexis Knapp) and Emily (Hailee Steinfeld)—are largely comedic based on aspects of their character. The other characters—Fat Amy, Lilly, Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean) and Flo (Chrissie Fit)—are in part or entirely comedic based on aspects of their physical characteristics: Race, size, gender expression, sexuality or some combination therein.

Pitch Perfect 2 often couches its more broadly offensive humor by putting it in the mouths of clearly offensive characters, hiding it behind the guise of gay camp, or sheltering it in the fact that the movie features actors of color and size who seem more than willing to poke fun at themselves. But my problem has less to do with whether or not certain lines might be perceived as offensive—although, to be clear, some absolutely are—and far more to do with the problem that having several characters who exist primarily to be punch lines fill up a film about a Diverse group of women combining their talents to overcome the odds. Especially when that problem is exacerbated by the clear division between main characters who have plot lines and other characters—the ones who allow Diversity to be a plot point in the first place—who don’t, really.

Fat Amy does have something of a plot here, revolving around her struggle with giving up her self-proclaimed lothario lifestyle to settle for monogamy, but that doesn’t change the fact that in several scenes Rebel Wilson’s body is the entire joke. Cynthia Rose gets a few good lines about being the most marginalized Bella based on her race and sexuality, but that doesn’t change the fact that Pitch Perfect 2 is nothing if not committed to gay panic jokes about girls who like girls, whether that’s Cynthia Rose’s unrequited crush on Stacie, Becca’s reaction to Chloe hinting at a same-sex affair or Becca’s confusion at her own attraction to Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sœrensen), a leader of the Bellas’ German a capella nemesis. That Lilly’s soft-spoken one liners are uniformly hilarious doesn’t change that she has zero character arc, that the joke is at least in part based on her diminutive size and her heritage, and that she’s played by the only actor of Korean descent in a film where Elizabeth Banks’ and John Michael Higgins’ characters later smirk that “nobody cares about the Korean team.” Flo, a new character in this film, is nothing more than a series of jokes about how poverty-stricken Latin America is.

Even if we assume that this humor is all self-aware and self-referential—like a couple of hilarious stray jokes about Ashley (Shelley Regner) and Jessica (Kelley Jakle), the other two (white) Bellas who are essentially glorified extras—this is a film that says Diversity is something to be celebrated at the same time that it takes every possible opportunity to mine stereotypes about people of color, diminutive and fat people, and people who enjoy same-sex sex. The impetus for the plot occurs when a P!nk-esque acrobatic performance by Fat Amy goes awry and her pants split. Realistically, this could have been any character; in practice, it’s supposed to be funnier than that because Wilson’s body isn’t the kind that the movie presumes we would want to see naked. This means that the mechanism that sets the plot in motion is a fat joke, and the resolution of that plot is the film telling you that value comes in all shapes and sizes and that’s what makes America great. Fine; but then why is there only a single whiteness joke in the film, as Cynthia Rose exasperatedly reacts when Chloe leads the rest of the Bellas in a rendition of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn”? It’s funny, but it would probably be funnier if Cynthia Rose didn’t know all the words to all of the other white-ish songs the Bellas have sang across the course of two films. To put it a different way, even if these are self-aware jokes? Pitch Perfect 2 is telling you that it’s getting away with something.

None of this would be a problem if all of the Bellas were the butt of the humor in the same way. They aren’t, and you can see the results of this dichotomy manifest in the plot of both films. Pitch Perfect purported to be the story of a rag tag group of singers learning to work together despite their differences. The movie was very clear that those differences were the result of Diversity—Aubrey (Anna Camp), the Bellas’ original leader, destroyed the group’s reputation by vomiting onstage, and was forced to recruit girls she never would have accepted otherwise. In being forced to accept people like Cynthia Rose, Lilly and Fat Amy, Aubrey unwittingly made the team stronger when Becca was able to fuse their disparate talents into a coherent whole. But that’s really only the implicit plot of Pitch Perfect. Most of the explicit plot has to do with Becca learning to be comfortable with being a “nerdy” a capella singer, and as soon as she gets on board it magically turns out that in addition to being punch lines Lilly can beatbox and Cynthia Rose can rap.

In this sequel there’s a similar problem: Most of the explicit plot has to do with Becca and Chloe not being on the same page, and so the Bellas’ performances have become overly produced and choreographed—they have no soul. Though the implicit plot is that the Bellas need to “find their sound” again by drawing on the talents of all of their members, in practice the rest of the characters wait around in various scenes where fat jokes and lesbian jokes and race jokes are made until Becca and Chloe finally reconcile, and then Fat Amy gives that speech about the power of Diversity before the Bellas finish with a performance that is essentially the same as the performance they gave at the end of the last film.

…except that they close this time with an original song. Which is the second problem—well, part of the second problem…but I don’t want to give away the plot of the film, so I’ll just say that Pitch Perfect 2 makes the same mistake in its final scene that many performance competition sequels have made: It crowns the final performance as bigger instead of better. One film that got it right? Step Up 2: The Streets, where the closing dance number is eons better than the ballet/hip-hop hybrid that closes the first Step Up, even though the film itself is mediocre.

Three films that got it wrong? The next three Step Up films, where it became inevitable that more and more dancers from the previous films were going to show up at the last second and instantly learn the choreography that the main troupe had been struggling with the whole time. There’s a version of that here, framed around a collaboration between Becca and Emily called “Flashlight” that is fine, but again it seems like the film is trying to have it both ways. It knows we want another Becca mash-up, so it gives a truncated one before delivering on Becca’s arc—to create something new—and in the process completely saps the performance of any gravitas. Especially because Banks and Higgins have to narrate over the performance to explain how audacious it is to do original material in an a cappella competition.

If that seems like a lot of criticism for a film I generally liked, it’s because the difference between a B+ and an A is often difficult to explain. There’s a hypocrisy that is built into these films that doesn’t ruin them but does keep them from being as strong as they could be, and that’s a shame—for the most part, Pitch Perfect 2 really sings.

Director: Elizabeth Banks
Writer: Kay Cannon
Starring: Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, Ester Dean, Alexis Knapp, Hana Mae Lee
Release Date: May 15, 2015

Mark Abraham sometimes teaches history in Toronto, is sometimes an Editor at Cokemachineglow, was at one time the co-founder of The Damper, and is always a Bedazzler aficionado. You can follow him on Twitter.