Friday, May 15, 2015

Let's Hear It for the Girls: "Pitch Perfect 2" a welcome, fan-pleasing sequel

Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) 
115 min., rated PG-13.

2012's collegiate-a cappella comedy "Pitch Perfect" was a pleasant surprise, winning over even the most unsuspecting grouchos. A buoyant crowd-pleaser with replay value, it was rendered inspired and often hilarious with a game, likable cast in harmony with irresistible music throwbacks and an acerbic, quotable script that an encore was bound to happen. Three years later, director Elizabeth Banks, producer and co-star of the first film, rounds up the troops and returning screenwriter Kay Cannon for her first feature, and for a return engagement that can't be the mic-drop the original was, "Pitch Perfect 2" is more than copacetic for those who still find themselves quoting the first one. Though the film noticeably runs out of steam, cramming in as much as it possibly can, the cast and writing match in comic verve, making sure the entire package still hits that funny-sweet spot without seeming foolish or desperate. If you liked it the first time, you'll probably like it again. 

"Pitch Perfect 2" finds our Barden Bellas, Barden University's all-female a cappella group, three-year champions, until they botch their winning streak at the Kennedy Center, thanks to Fat Amy's (Rebel Wilson) humiliating "wardrobe malfunction" on stage in front of President Obama and First Lady Michelle. Slapped with the warning of a suspension, they can only be reinstated by competing in and winning Copenhagen's 2015 World A Cappella Championship, where no American team has ever won, but they're daunted by their intimidatingly talented German rivals, Das Sound Machine. Meanwhile, Beca (Anna Kendrick) is facing the pressures of her senior year and feels all of her time dedicated to the Bellas is taking time away from her true aspirations to be a music producer, so she slips away to an internship at a record producing studio, unbeknownst to her team, particularly laser-focused second-in-command Chloe (Brittany Snow). At the same time, the girls welcome freshman Emily Junk (Hailee Steinfeld) for not only being talented in her own right but for being a "legacy" whose mother (Katey Sagal) was a Bella alumna. The Bellas already have their work cut out for them, but will Beca further ruin their chances by being preoccupied with her secret internship? 

As with any sequel, you want the same magic but not just more of the same. "Pitch Perfect 2" doesn't do much about changing the narrative beats that we already saw the first time, but it is so hugely likable and eager to please that it's easy not to mind. Kay Cannon's script still has plenty of fizz and wickedly sharp one-liners, but it could be tighter were it not for all of the scattershot subplots. If you didn't think you needed more time with Fat Amy and the proudly obnoxious Bumper (Adam DeVine) and their no-longer-suggested romance, its payoff is a hilarious declaration of love from across a lake, obviously cued to a song (Pat Benatar's "We Belong"). The film not only checks in again with Beca and Treblemaker member Jesse (Skylar Astin), who have remained a couple since we last saw her win him back, but new-to-the-fold Emily also gets wooed by Jesse's adorably dorky, magic-obsessed roommate, Benji (Ben Platt). Meandering a little too much to keep the brisk pace going, the film still cohesively hits home its messages about bonding as a team and finding one's own voice again. The Copenhagen championship number, nicely shoehorning in Jessie J's "Flashlight" as Emily's original song, is also a strong finish with surprising emotional oomph. 

Juggling broad laughs and snappy verbal exchanges, the film pops the most during the interactions between the Bellas. While the first "Pitch Perfect" was largely an ensemble piece, the endlessly charismatic Anna Kendrick was the glue and the narrative followed her Beca's journey. She still keeps everything together here, as Beca learns to get away from mash-ups and find her original voice, but Hailee Steinfeld nicely steps in as the newcomer with a cute, loose enthusiasm for comedy. The mousy, saucer-eyed Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) still doesn't speak her outrageous one-liners above a whisper that it's just as adorably weird as before. The use of Flo, the token Hispanic, is a little indelicate and stereotypical, but "Pitch Perfect" newcomer Chrissi Fit makes sure every line delivery gets a reaction. There's even a welcome self-awareness in acknowledging the insignificance of Ashley (Shelley Regner) and Jessica (Kelley Jakle), two of the Bellas who were practically extras in the first film. Director Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins are, once again, dynamite reprising their color-commentator shtick as Gail and John, while never breaking their announcer voices when dropping stingingly caustic remarks that almost go too far but still land a laugh. Above all, the unstoppably out-there Rebel Wilson is at it again as Fat Amy, hijacking scenes and bringing down the house with every physical gesture and one-liner she gets her hands on. It's also sweet and empowering to see such a plus-sized young woman being confident and in charge of her own romance. 

If "Pitch Perfect" was biting but always sweet-natured, "Pitch Perfect 2" is even more of an equal-opportunity offender this time—shots at Indians, Hispanics, women, you name it, it's here—but never crosses the line into callous and overly mean. Behind the camera, Banks does bring a flashier style to the a capella scene with even more stage performances without cutting them up too much to not make out the choreography. While one could see where some of her montages and set-pieces go on too long—a college party, the leading up to the World Championship in Copenhagen, etc.—there are more memorable trade-offs, like an underground "Riff-Off" in a super-fan's (David Cross) mansion basement, where the real Green Bay Packers get to be good sports and steal laughs; Beca's constant failed attempts at insulting the Das Sound Machine leaders (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Flula Borg) come out more like compliments ("Your sweat smells like cinnamon!"); and a bit at Beca's internship where she shows her worth on producing a Christmas jingle for Snoop Dogg, who's very endearing as himself. Keegan-Michael Key's part as Beca's producer boss also amuses, and it's surprising that a running joke involving him insulting an intern full of bad ideas gets better as it's repeated. Finally, a team-building camping retreat, headed by type-A former Bellas leader Aubrey (Anna Camp), culminates with an unexpectedly sweet moment and reprisal of Kendrick's hit song "Cups" around a campfire. There are those rare comedy sequels that surpass their predecessors, like "22 Jump Street," "A Very Brady Sequel" and "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," but "Pitch Perfect 2" is more like "American Pie 2" and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," which is to say that it's just as good as it needs to be. You can't hiss at the same pleasingly kooky energy and spirited vibes if they work and are just as undeniably entertaining the second time.

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