Funnier, more heart-felt, and just plain better, Pitch Perfect 2 gets to join that exclusive club of comedy sequels that are markedly better than the original.
Full Disclosure: The reviewer saw this film at an early press screening provided by the distributor, Universal Pictures, that also included a 20 minute roundtable interview with Elizabeth Banks afterwards.
Who was actually surprised by the fact that Pitch Perfect became a sleeper hit in cinemas and a massive success on home media? No, seriously, who actually didn’t see this coming? The narrative that surrounds the first Pitch Perfect is very much that of a film that, despite being shunted out in mid-October and made for pittance ($17 million), succeeded against all odds and expectations, becoming a beloved and surprising cult hit. Yet, and trying not to diverge into ‘I told you so’ territory here, I saw this coming from a mile and a half away. It’s a basically a girl friendship movie, aimed at young women – a market Hollywood still doesn’t tap into near-enough – with a great sense of humour and good songs. You know, it’s like everybody forgets that Mean Girls, Bring It On, Clueless, et al exist.
Well, Pitch Perfect did extremely well, so now here comes Pitch Perfect 2, as is the Hollywood way. Now, regular followers of my work, my Twitter, my radio show, or who just happened to be in the general vicinity of me these past few months, will more than likely know that this, out of everything else, was my most anticipated film of the year going in. What keeps getting lost in this whole thing is that I think the original Pitch Perfect is barely great. I do really like it, think it’s really funny, know that its heart is in the right place, and it pulls off the girl friendship thread with aplomb, but I don’t love it. It relies too much on gross-out vomit-based comedy for my liking, the actual one-liners and such are way more hit or miss than I expect from Kay Cannon – the film’s writer and an ex-30 Rock alumni – and the Beca (Anna Kendrick)/Jesse (Skylar Astin) romance at best distracts from the true core of the film, The Bellas, and at worst is kinda gross.
So, that’s the base that Pitch Perfect 2 has to work from, although it also has to deal with the handicap of losing original director Jason Moore and being a comedy sequel which, barring very rare exceptions, are at best decent time-wasters and little more. At best. So, with all those factors working against it – along with pre-release plot info and casting announcements, pretty much everybody is back and there are a bunch of new cast members too, suggesting that this would be every bit the pointless comedy sequel – the fact that Pitch Perfect 2 is damn good is a legitimate surprise. The fact that Pitch Perfect 2 is great is a miracle. The fact that Pitch Perfect 2 is, in many respects, better than the first film is nothing short of witchcraft.
See, Pitch Perfect 2 is the kind of sequel that doubles down on what works but doesn’t simply repeat the first film. Although the set-up of the film involves busting The Barden Bellas back down to underdog status – Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) accidentally ends up flashing the President during a benefit concert, which leads to the Bellas being suspended from the National A Capella Association unless they can win the World Championships, something that no American team has ever done – the film is actually only interested in that aspect as a means to filter its main focus through. Instead of being another underdog movie, this is primarily a film about friendship and the fear of moving on, as the film doubles down on the relationship between the girls and minimises the romance elements in service of that.
To wit, the Bellas just aren’t in sync like they used to be because the fast-approaching milestone of graduation is affecting them in different ways. Beca is secretly interning for a hot-shot music producer (Keegan-Michael Key) and very worried that she might not be able to make it in the industry, Chloe (Brittany Snow) is preparing to fail her chosen major for the seventh year in a row to make sure she doesn’t have to leave the Bellas, Barden freshman Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) is the daughter of a Bella legacy and whose sole life goal is to join the group but doesn’t fit in as well as she thought she would, and the rest of the team are thrown off of their game by the European champions, Das Sound Machine. There’s also the return of Benji (Ben Platt) who falls for Emily at first sight, Bumper (Adam DeVine) is in a no strings attached relationship with Fat Amy but may be developing actual feelings for her, and the world of the original Pitch Perfect is blown wide open and expanded with even more characters and little incidental details.
In simple terms: there is a lot going on in this nearly 2 hour comedy, but credit to Elizabeth Banks, who takes over the reins on the director’s chair, and returning screenwriter Kay Cannon, they never lose sight of the central themes of friendship and moving on. That heart, that loving relationship that its cast share, never gets completely lost beneath all of the moving parts, and when it finally bursts through totally in the final third the film is on pure unstoppable fire – there’s a specific moment during a campfire scene late in the movie where I am not in the slightest bit ashamed to admit that I teared up like a complete sap. There’s a believability to everyone’s relationships, the closeness and intimacy that they all share that is subtly and carefully built up so that the last third, which deals with every single plot thread and arc one after the other, is sustained catharsis that leaves those central relationships standing tall throughout.
This is also, despite being nearly 2 hours long and having all of that content to cover, a very tightly paced film that never noticeably dragged. Despite this being her first feature directing gig, Banks shows a confidence in editing and scene pacing that is rarer than usual in the American comedy feature genre – I didn’t find any scenes that just devolved into leaving the camera running whilst excess improv took place. She also seems to enjoy indulging her inner-Step Up 2, expanding the scale of the world to comical proportions whilst still keeping a tenuous grip on reality. Gail (Banks) and John (John Michael Higgins), the commentators, are back and are revealed to be the hosts of an A Capella podcast and the representatives of the National A Capella Association, David Cross turns up as an A Capella enthusiast who hosts underground high stakes Riff-Offs, and musical performances are generally more flamboyant and busy than last time without losing the charm of the lower-key original – which is a good summary of the film overall, quite honestly.
Pitch Perfect 2 is also just plain funnier than the first film, the jokes coming thick and fast and not really letting up until the credits roll. Hailee Steinfeld’s Emily is especially well-served by the script here with her character’s excessively awkward and geeky enthusiasm being a great source of humour, whilst Keegan-Michael Key nearly runs away with the entire film from everyone else as a hysterically overbearing and egotistical record producer who treats his interns like a schoolteacher who has stopped giving a damn about parental blowback. There are also frequent jokes that allude to both the sexually voracious nature and strongly hinted bi-sexuality of most of the Bellas in ways that feel genuine and sincere – in comparison to, say, Seth Rogan/James Franco comedies that hit the “these two are totally gay for each other, but they’re not really gay, see, they have sex with women!” button so hard and so frequently that it’s permanently stuck in the machine by this point – and that’s refreshing as hell to see.
All this being said, Pitch Perfect 2 is not perfect. For one, although that last third is an incredibly satisfying 40 minutes to experience, the messy “throw everything out there at the beginning and we’ll deal with it in turn later” nature of the first third means that it takes the film a little while to get going and feels more than a little awkward. It also bends over backwards to ensure that everyone is able to return for this movie in ways that are definitely forced, all but lampshaded when Bumper’s introduction to this film occurs when a random cut during a party scene reveals him to be back as a security guard, shouting this fact to no-one in particular. Whilst I do find Bumper’s story with Fat Amy here to be oddly sweet, and whilst the return of Aubrey is amazing and works totally, it still makes their inclusion here feel somewhat mandatory, like a Pitch Perfect Sequel check-list was being ticked off somewhere (better handled is Jesse who just appears sporadically as Beca’s supportive boyfriend and little more).
More problematic is the film’s frequent detours into lazy racial stereotyping humour. Although Worlds is barely a factor in the film, their eventual appearance does lead to an extended sequence in which Gail and John make lengthy stereotype-based jokes like the Taiwanese team being made up of “Ladyboys” or how the Korean team’s barbeque is something to avoid. It’s kind of OK, because Gail and John have already been made out to be terrible, terrible people (John especially and he gets even more hilariously casually awful this time), but it does still skirt that line nonetheless. A bigger problem is new Bella Flo (Chrissie Fit) whose joke and characteristic is that she is an immigrant who has just had the absolute worst life up to now. It feels too mean-spirited, especially since most of the jokes play on that immigrant backstory, and, coupled with the commentators and the excessively stereotypically German nature of DSM, leaves this strand of humour feeling lazy in a way that the film otherwise avoids. It’s disappointing.
Those, however, are still relatively minor flaws and fail to take away from what Pitch Perfect 2 manages to get right. Prior to seeing the film, the thing I wanted from it was for it to be a girl friendship movie, to commit fully to its premise and promise and centrally be a film about the bonds shared between a collective group of coolly weird women. Though there is a tonne going on in Pitch Perfect 2, Banks and Cannon never lose sight of that very thing whilst still expanding the world of the film and not simply re-treading ground covered in the original. This is a funny, heart-felt, heart-warming film that is brilliantly paced, excellently acted – surprising no-one, hence why I didn’t really mention it – fiercely feminist, damn near everything I wanted, and better in almost every single department than the first film.
I now count two comedy sequels in consecutive years that are as good as or better than the films that spawned them. Can this become a full-on trend, please?