Before the release of Clueless in 1995, I remember watching a TV special about the high school fashions seen in the film. One particular moment has stuck with me, in which a member of the production team discussed the problem of predicting the fashion of the near-future so that Clueless wouldn’t appear outdated by the time it hit theaters. How they solved this problem I don’t recall. (Cher and Dionne are eternally cool in my book.) But twenty years later and with infinitely more data at their disposal, movie studios are somehow no closer to knowing what the world will look or sound like at the end of a film’s production cycle. So here is Pitch Perfect 2— awash in the warm glow of the pop hits from one and two years ago. The opening musical number starts with Kesha and Pitbull’s “Timber,” for example, and reaches its first big laugh with Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball.” Late to the meme-party, the film instead turns Fat Amy’s Miley-soundtracked gaffe into a viral news item, dubbed Muffgate, in its own fictional world.
Director: Elizabeth Banks
Producers: Elizabeth Banks, Paul Brooks, Max Handelman, Jason Moore
Writers: Kay Cannon, Mickey Rapkin
Cinematographer: Jim Denault
Editor: Craig Alpert
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, Katey Sagal, Anna Camp, Alexis Knapp, Ben Platt, Hana Mae Lee, Ester Dean, Chrissie Fit, Kelley Jakle, Shelley Regner
US Theatrical Release: May 15, 2015
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
The downfall of Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) becomes the downfall of her college a cappella group the Barden Bellas, who follow a fitful road to redemption through the warm, ungainly second installment of this songbook-shuffle franchise. Along the way, they must navigate a world of rival groups and, in the case of Anna Kendrick’s Beca, music biz lessons so untethered from reality that one must immediately surrender to the script’s peculiar logic. It is a comedy after all (and necessarily hermetic) and the Bellas sing, with the film’s rosy, regressive approach to soundtrack, ultimately to its benefit with no need for the world of collegiate a cappella to contain the same level of posturing and trendsetting found at the Beverly Hills high school of Clueless. The only real lesson or truth to be derived from its view of the music world (apart from the recognizable frustration of Beca’s fruitless laptop key-smashing, after being told to find her artistic voice) is that people enjoy hearing elaborate vocal arrangements delivered with spirit and animation. Even the viewer whose beliefs are diametrically opposed to the Glee school of music-love will probably respond involuntarily to something here. Regressive but not always narrow, there’s a moment during the awaited “riff off” when one group takes on Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” and another responds with A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario.” Here and elsewhere, the vocals are perfectly calibrated for a pleasurable response, enhanced toward superhuman shimmer, and I once or twice felt a shiver in my spine during versions of songs I thought I didn’t like.
The movie also makes a foray into the realm of the true musical, with a bona fide number--a great one--that has Fat Amy standing in a boat and paddling herself slowly forward while lip-belting Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” to her guy on the shore. It’s absurd and triumphant. The movie posits a cappella and the sing-along as a universal celebration and an inclusive space, but when we finally see the international a cappella competition at the film’s end, all the nations in their finest clothes, there’s a lot more variety to the wardrobe than to the music, which all seems to follow the same Western scales and rhythms.
Most of the Bellas’ competitors from around the world fade to the background, but because Hollywood loves a joke at the expense of Germans, the Bellas’ main rivals are the leaders of Das Sound Machine, a group that’s only slightly less awash in stereotypes than the average German villain of modern comedy. They make a nod or two to Kraftwerk but ultimately amount to a slick Eurovision take on industrial menace. Their first appearance takes Muse’s “Uprising” as its theme, the song becoming what it was perhaps always meant to be, an anthem of submission to corporate synergy. Das Sound Machine is hawking Volkswagens, apparently, in a sequence that finds the film going from product placement to full-on product integration. 30 Rock perfected the winking approach to branded storylines, but those days are gone. Like a recent Honda-themed episode of Community, Pitch Perfect 2 glimpses the sad reality: Our corporate overlords are here to stay and can’t be winked away, and the only recourse of comedy writers is to try to have fun with their products.
But screenwriter Kay Cannon has many other things on her mind, an inexhaustible supply of plots and gags to hopefully finesse into a semblance of a whole. Like the first film, Pitch Perfect 2 has a Frankenstein’s monster of a script, suggesting momentum through a series of discrete, more-hit-than-miss scenes. Here’s Snoop Dogg, prepping a gaudy Christmas album, hanging out while Beca saves the project with one of those flashes of inspiration that only happen in movies. There’s David Cross, channeling his old Mr. Show eccentrics as the “world’s greatest a cappella enthusiast,” hosting a music battle and the Green Bay Packers in his conspicuously well-appointed mansion (also welcome sights: John Hodgman, Reggie Watts). And back again, because the film badly wants to shoehorn the best bits of Best In Show into its universe, are Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins as a pair of clueless, self-involved commentators, with Higgins’ misogyny his only remaining character trait. And then, before you know it, the Bellas are whisked away to a team-building retreat. “What a great idea!” one of them says, convincing us that a comedy need not be anything but a greatest hits collection.
But look past all the narrative whiplash (it’s not so much to look past, after all) and what’s left is a hangout movie, as relaxed and improvisatory as its musical arrangements are carefully constructed. The cast has really gelled the second time around, if it hadn’t before, and the movie is best when it’s giving them space and time to play off each other and create unexpected moments. Elizabeth Banks’ direction doesn’t often distinguish the film from any other recent Hollywood comedy, but there’s one stroke of genius, when the main cast, squeezed into a tent at the camp retreat, arranges into a long, straight line and the camera tracks over their heads, following the suddenly self-aware conversation of a group of women who’ve grown comfortable with each other but who are alternately anxious and excited about sleeping in such close proximity. Eventually they cut through the whispers and silence and come together for Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” to which Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean) counters, “What kind of white shit is this?” She’s one of the group’s sidelined characters, longing for more progressive song selection but not getting many chances to state her case.
The tentative promise of that scene reaches its fulfillment a bit later, when the group gets its groove fully back, seated around a fire with each member declaring her plans for the future, then harmonizing with her comrades. Crucial moments of self-actualization follow. “I never pictured myself running a retreat,” says group alum Aubrey (Anna Camp), happy in her post-grad job, the implication being that she did picture it, eventually, and was pleased with the image. And future music producer Beca might be awaiting the validation of her boss, but her relationship with her muse, new a cappella recruit Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), is much more meaningful. Here’s the rare recent movie, mainstream or otherwise, that not only passes the Bechdel Test but also fails the opposite of the Bechdel Test: There’s no conversation between the film’s male characters that isn’t about a woman or at least seen through the prism of a woman’s aspirations.