Tuesday, May 19, 2015
MOVIE REVIEW: "Pitch Perfect 2"
In a epoch dominated by the notion of "franchise-building," where the goal is to create film dynasties that evolve into perpetual motion cash machines fueled by reboots and sprawling "cinematic universes," it's almost quaint to happen upon an old-fashioned sequel- One that was greenlit simply because the original film became an unexpected hit.
Pitch Perfect was a modest box office hit back in 2012, but then found a gigantic and fiercely loyal following via home video/incessant cable showings. Like Austin Powers 15 years earlier, what began as a cult classic spawned a sequel that outgrossed the ENTIRE run run of the original in its opening weekend- Unlike the second Powers film, Pitch Perfect 2 largely recaptures the magic of its predecessor, despite sounding a handful of badly off-key notes.
The first hurdle PP2 has to surmount is the most basic of sequel problems: The first film is a solidly self-contained story with coherent character arcs and conflicts that are decisively and satisfyingly resolved by the time the credits roll. How do you demonstrate that there is another story that needs to be told? The opening sequence is a pale facsimile of the pre-credits scene that jolted audiences to attention during the first film- What happens resets the Barden Bellas as underdogs, and ratchets up the stakes (if they don't win the Acapella World Championships, the Bellas will be permanently disbanded... Long story.), but lacks the visceral punch/shock value of Anna Camp's complete and total barf-o-rama in PP.
22 Jump Street wrung huge laughs from pointing out and deconstructing every sequel trope in the book last summer, and PP2 takes a stab at similar insights while refusing to go as "full meta" as Lord & Miller's smash hit. The film is surprisingly effective at delivering the enthralling musical numbers fans demand while simultaneously whispering "Hey, it's kinda ridiculous that all these people are treating singing mash-ups of hit singles like it's a life-and-death struggle, aint it?" Even the German group that is set up as the Bellas' main antagonists are less villainous than possessed by a Richard Sherman-level of confident intensity. One of the film's best running gags is Beca's repeated attempts to insult her counterpart in "Das Sound Machine," only to hear odd, flirtatious compliments spill out of her mouth at every turn.
Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson stand out positively from the ensemble cast even more than they did in the first film, and the movie loses momentum when its focus wanders away from them (particularly due to a handful of new characters that largely fail to make an impact- The big exception is Keenan-Michael Key as an exasperated music producer). First-time Director Elizabeth Banks is given a largely thankless job: Give the fans what they want (Big musical numbers! Snarky/PG-13-ish smutty humor! Female bonding!), without the result feeling like a retread of the original film. On balance she succeeds, but not without a few significant missteps: There's a pointlessly transphobic gag (ugh), and a new Latina character veers into laugh-free ethnic caricature. The first film wasn't exactly free from racially questionable humor, but the sequel regrettably fades in the wrong direction.
The massive box-office success of an entertaining, well-made, woman-centric film is heartening, though. Male characters are de-emphasized in PP2, and largely exist as current or potential love interests for the Bellas. The boys in Pitch Perfect 2 are primarily relegated to cheering on and supporting the Bellas, which is an oddly satisfying inversion of the gender dynamics typically seen on the big screen.
If you enjoyed the original film, there's no reason to wait until the inevitable basic cable replays to see Pitch Perfect 2. It's solidly entertaining and just distinct enough from the original to justify its existence- Though it does beg the question: Who will the Bellas face off in the inevitable Pitch Perfect 3? Will they have to defeat space aliens in an epic riff-off to save humanity?
Oh God. That's going to happen, isn't it?