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‘Pitch” sequel is far from ‘Perfect’

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media

In his non-fiction book, “Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory,” Mickey Rapkin provided a sobering, behind the scenes perspective on the highly competitive world of amateur singing competitions. In her first screenplay, Second City alum, Kay Cannon provided a very loose adaptation of the tome. She transformed the book into a jocular, fictionalized entity.

In the 2012 film version, Beca (Anna Kendrick), was a freshman at Barden University. Succumbing to peer pressure, she was cajoled into joining The Bellas, her school’s distaff singing group. They went on to become the first all-female group to win of the national a cappella tournament.

In the screenplay for the sequel, also penned by Cannon, the Bellas have successfully defended their title for three successive years.  Beca, the one-time neophyte, has risen through the ranks. Now, she has become music director of the Bellas.

In a pre-credits sequence, the Bellas are appearing at the Lincoln Center at a show, to mark Barack Obama’s birthday. Cutaways depict the President and the First Lady supposedly sitting in the audience. The Bellas pull out all the stops with a well-orchestrated vocal and terpsichorean routine.

Alas, at this career defining moment for the Bellas, things go horribly awry. While dangling from a suspended trapeze bar, Fat Amy has a wardrobe malfunction. As a consequence, the pudendum of the wise-cracking Aussie is exposed.

Of course, footage of the humiliating vignette becomes an internet sensation. The incident is disparagingly labeled “Muffgate” by wags. The bloviating punditocracy heaps opprobrium upon the Bellas.

Alas, this opening scene and its immediate aftermath are the high point of “Pitch Perfect 2.” After it concludes, the film fizzles.

“Pitch Perfect 2” repeats the trope lifted from “Best in Show” and “Dodgeball.” The prissy Gail Abernathy-McKadden (Elizabeth Banks, who also co-produced and directed) and the politically incorrect John Smith (John Michael Higgins) are podcast commentators for the opening cappella performance and subsequent contests. Apparently, they are also officials in the United States A Cappella Foundation. In this latter capacity, they suspend the Bellas and bar them from making any stateside performances. Piling on, the dean of Barden College issues an edict, which precludes the Bellas from recruiting any new members.

With the Bellas barred from performing cappella concerts in the United States, their scheduled tour is cancelled. Das Sound Machine, a co-ed German group titivated in fetish apparel, fills the void. They are led by a trash-talking, blonde Amazonian, Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) and Pieter Krämer (Flula Borg). The group provides heavily accented renditions of such ‘90s era tunes as, “Insane in the Membrane” and “This Is How We Do It.”

The only chance that the Bellas have for redemption and reinstatement is to beat Das Sound Machine and all other competitors at the World A Cappella Competition. No team from the United States has ever won the contest.

The sequel introduces a new character, incoming freshman, Emily Junk (Hailee Steinfeld from the Coen Brothers’ remake of “True Grit”). She is a second generation Bella. Her mother, Katherine (Katy Sagal from “Married With Children”) is a former Bella. She had a five-octave singing voice and was credited with introducing syncopated butt-wiggling to the world of a cappella. Expository dialogue informs the audience of a plot contrivance. Apparently, since Emily is a so-called legacy member of the Bellas, she can circumvent the dean’s fiat. In a new narrative thread. Emily tries to prod the group into augmenting their somewhat tired collection of covers with some of her original compositions.

This photo released by Universal Pictures shows, from left, Ester Dean as Cynthia Rose, Shelley Regner as Ashley, Kelley Alice Jakle as Jessica, Hailee Steinfeld as Emily, Anna Kendrick as Beca, Brittany Snow as Chloe, Alexis Knapp as Stacie, Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy, and Hana Mae Lee as Lilly Anna Kendrick as Beca, as the Barden Bellas in a scene from the film, "Pitch Perfect 2." (Richard Cartwright/Universal Pictures via AP)

This photo released by Universal Pictures shows, from left, Ester Dean as Cynthia Rose, Shelley Regner as Ashley, Kelley Alice Jakle as Jessica, Hailee Steinfeld as Emily, Anna Kendrick as Beca, Brittany Snow as Chloe, Alexis Knapp as Stacie, Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy, and Hana Mae Lee as Lilly Anna Kendrick as Beca, as the Barden Bellas in a scene from the film, “Pitch Perfect 2.” (Richard Cartwright/Universal Pictures via AP)

This photo released by Universal Pictures shows, from left, Shelley Regner as Ashley, Hana Mae Lee as Lilly, Brittany Snow as Chloe, Alexis Knapp as Stacie, Anna Kendrick as Beca, Chrissie Fit as Flo, Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy, and Kelley Alice Jakle as Jessica, in a scene from the film, "Pitch Perfect 2." (Richard Cartwright/Universal Pictures via AP)

This photo released by Universal Pictures shows, from left, Shelley Regner as Ashley, Hana Mae Lee as Lilly, Brittany Snow as Chloe, Alexis Knapp as Stacie, Anna Kendrick as Beca, Chrissie Fit as Flo, Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy, and Kelley Alice Jakle as Jessica, in a scene from the film, “Pitch Perfect 2.” (Richard Cartwright/Universal Pictures via AP)

The Bellas also include several other characters, all of whom are woefully underdeveloped. Chloe (Brittany Snow), a redhead, who is totally committed to the group. She has intentionally flunked Russian lit three years running, just so that she can continue to participate with the Bellas. Lilly Okanakamura (Hana Mae Lily) is an Asian, who whispers off-the-wall remarks such as, “I keep a penny under my tongue” and “I sleep upside down like a bat.” Cynthia-Rose Adams (Ester Dean) is an African-American lesbian. Although she has little screen time, her singing and acting make a big impression. Florencia Fuentes (Chrissie Fit) is a Guatemalan immigrant. She contrasts every minor setback experienced by Bellas with the genuine hardship in her past. Florencia recounts having been sold for a chicken by her brother and almost dying from dysentery. The other members of the Bellas register as little more than ciphers.

In a brief appearance, recording “Winter Wonderland,” Snoop Dog exudes screen charm. In a permutation of his customary annoying persona, David Cross plays an overzealous a cappella enthusiast. A cameo by Clay Matthews and several of his Green Bay Packers teammates proves gratuitous.

The screenplay, again by Kay Cannon, is vastly inferior to the one she provided for the original.  It is a mish mash of contrived narrative devices. The film repeatedly alludes to the disproportionately high percentage of people with gender and orientation, who are involved with a cappella. However, Cannon seems uncertain whether she wants to milk this phenomenon as the butt of low brow humor or use the film as a cry on behalf of compassion and understanding for social misfits.

“Pitch Perfect 2” presents three romantic subplots. After appearing early in the film, Beca’s boyfriend, Jesse (Skylar Astin), abruptly disappears for no discernible reason. It is as if the screenwriter simply forgot that he existed.  Bumper (Adam DeVine) is inexplicably smitten with Fat Amy. She spurns his earnest overtures. The socially maladroit Benjy (Ben Platt) tries to woo freshman coed, Emily. However, these efforts are subverted by his blatant ineptitude. None of these relationships seem in any way organic.

The film’s attempts at humor are puerile and repeatedly fall flat. Is it really all that funny that Emily’s surname is Junk? Are we supposed to laugh at the snide homophobic and misogynistic remarks offered by John Michael Higgins’ character? Florencia’s recurrent remarks about genuine human misery in the underdeveloped world create a tonal dissonance.

The film’s production values are demonstrably weak. On a modest $17 million budget, “Pitch Perfect” grossed $112 million worldwide. Given the success of the original, one might have expected that more money would have been allocated to enhance the caliber of the sequel.

Mired in mediocrity, this “Pitch” sequel is far from perfect.

**PG-13 (for innuendo and language) 115 minutes. Universal Pictures

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

 

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