Everybody loves a song.
It can be the perfect emotional climax to a movie. From The Blues Brothers to School of Rock to Linda Linda Linda to, hell, the original Pitch Perfect, the final performance as cathartic moment is a well worn trope, and for good reasons. The first is obvious and structural, like the big game at the end of the sports movie, it gives the movie a point to work towards, focusing all the emotional arcs on one well-understood act with clear stakes and context.
The second reason is that songs are inherently moving. A powerful music cue can imbue a dramatically inert moment with intense emotion, regardless of whether or not the story itself has earned the payoff it wishes to create. If you center your finale around good music, and don’t do anything disastrously wrong in that scene, audiences are likely to walk out satisfied.
The problem with Pitch Perfect 2 is literally everything else.
Pitch Perfect 2
Director: Elizabeth Banks
Release Date: May 15, 2015
As the movie opens, the Bellas (our A Capella heroes) are performing for none other than President Obama himself, inserted into the audience with cheesy stock footage. Every member of the team gets their moment in this welcome back performance, building up to the reveal of fan favourite Fat Amy, hanging from a curtain and belting out a solo. Then, her trousers get ripped, and she ends up exposing herself to the entire audience, who react with abject horror.
Ha ha, a fat person has a vagina! How disgusting! Roll titles!
It’s an opening indicative of what to come. For one thing – it isn’t funny. Pitch Perfect 2 is disappointingly light on laugh out loud moments, perhaps the only memorable one coming from an unexpected cameo. The scenes play out with a sense of obligation to them, a been here done that feeling that is oh so familiar to leagues and leagues of comedy sequels, and the jokes are often little more than references to the prior movie. Bumper’s back, and he flirts with Fat Amy at a party! Again! *nudge nudge, wink wink*
Pitch Perfect 2 is also approximately seven years long, squeezing in about six incongruent and unfocused character arcs in the gaps between the many, many musical setpieces that make up the 115 minute running time. It takes a twenty minute detour to David Cross’ house half way through the movie in order to do a reprise of the popular sing-off scene from the first film. It’s perhaps one of the movie’s better scenes, but it’s far too elaborately constructed and belaboured for something that amounts to nothing more than a tangent.
Whilst it’s easily the most out of place scene in the film, it’s less a problem itself and more a symptom of deeper structural flaws. The scenes don’t flow, the story isn’t constructed for a thematic or emotional ends, it’s a conveyor belt of stuff that has to be there. The music scenes have little to do with the character scenes which have little to do with the comedy scenes. All the required elements are present, but haphazardly thrown onto the screen with no attempt to bind them into a strong narrative.
But all of that would be completely forgivable, if the movie’s core was solid. After all, Pitch Perfect‘s aims are important – it positions itself as a story of empowerment, essentially a franchise of coming of age movies about a group of girls being best friends. And if it achieved that, structural flaws and indulgent reference humour would ultimately be only surface level criticism. But that dream dies in the opening scene.
The movie’s humour often springs out of this crass and nasty place, consistently aiming its sights on anyone who isn’t slim, conventionally attractive and white. Fat Amy’s confidence isn’t played as a response to a harmful culture that consistently shames and dehumanises her, it’s a setup to a joke that is always being told, and the punchline is her fatness. In between the movies, the group has picked up a new member from Guatemala, who constantly references her impending deportation. Hana Mae Lee’s character isn’t just the quiet, timid asian girl from the original, now she’s a ninja too!
It’s hypocritical for Pitch Perfect 2 to stake its claim at empowerment, when it’s filled to bursting with harmful jokes, and its core musical gimmick isn’t far removed from Acoustic Covers of Rap Songs.
While it’s disappointing, it isn’t exactly surprising, these problems existed in the first film, and the sequel has only doubled down on the upsetting elements. The movie is a two hour adaptation of Patricia Arquette’s Oscar speech, its feminist politics defined by a lack of self awareness and intersectional thinking, as it cuts back and forth between scenes of the Bella sisters bonding to thirty seconds of hilarious racist transphobia.
But hey, then they sing a song.