Pitch Perfect 2   (2015) dir. Elizabeth Banks Rated: PG-13 image:  ©2015  Universal Pictures

Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)
dir. Elizabeth Banks
Rated: PG-13
image: ©2015 Universal Pictures

The sequel to the 2012 hit Pitch Perfect – which I marginally liked – is so desperate to entertain that it becomes a tonal mess amid all the clashing performances. Combined with a profoundly mean-spirited sense of humor, Pitch Perfect 2 is a slog to get through. Thankfully, the movie does the musical numbers skillfully, which was a highlight of the first film, too. Otherwise this sequel is a disappointment.

The movie starts with an ill-fated performance by our heroes – female a cappella singing group, the Barden University Bellas – at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Using the magic of fairly unconvincing stock footage, President and First Lady Obama are in attendance to see Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) flash her crotch in front of the entire black-tie-festooned audience. Pitch Perfect 2 is not an exercise in subtlety. As a result of the inevitable media firestorm that ensues, the Bellas are punished with something even worse than Delta House’s Double Secret Probation: They are forbidden from holding tryouts for new members, and all their future appearances on the a cappella performance circuit are cancelled.

The Bellas are further punished by being allowed to enter only one competition, the International A Cappella Championships. If they win, their suspension will be lifted. John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks represent the governing body, as well as serving as commentators at every a cappella contest, whose peculiar reasoning isn’t helped by the pair’s over the top performances. This competitive restriction is seen as punishment by the officials because no American team has ever won on this stage, but it’s really a plot device that serves only to introduce the movie’s villains – the one dimensional evil German a cappella group, Das Sound Machine.

We’re next introduced to the character of Emily Junk-Hardon (pronounced exactly like you think) played by Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit and Ender’s Game. Emily is a Bella legacy, who, along with her mother is totally oblivious to the fact that the Bellas have become a national disgrace. Luckily for the plot, Emily is just excited to join the team, and she’s technically allowed in because the group didn’t try her out, she came to them. Katy Sagal plays Emily’s mother, and is once again wasted in a thankless matriarch role.

As flimsy as the plot of Pitch Perfect 2 is, that’s not the real problem. Almost every performer acts as though they are the star, and as a result the movie can’t function as a cohesive whole. It’s like Elizabeth Banks, directing her feature debut after producing the original Pitch, told every actor to “turn it up to 11.” A good example of this is Keegan-Michael Key, of Comedy Central’s Key and Peele fame. The character as played by Key would fit perfectly in a sketch from his show. He’s so over the top it’s like he’s in his own movie. Some of it works, most of it doesn’t.

Anna Kendrick reprises her role as Beca, the heroine of the first film, but doesn’t leave much of an impression. Beca is involved in a subplot in which she gets an internship at a recording studio (Key is her boss), but that storyline just fizzles out. Pitch Perfect 2 also suffers from stunt casting syndrome and, while I won’t ruin them by name dropping here, it’s usually a problem when most of the fun comes from just seeing a famous face pop up, rather than watching them actually do something.

The most disappointing aspect of the film is the ignoble nature of the jokes. Comedy can (and sometimes should) be ugly, but almost all the laughs here are at the expense of easy and defenseless targets. For instance, the character of Florencia “Flo” Fuentes, played by Chrissie Fit, exists solely to make fun of Central Americans, because, you see, Flo joined the Bellas when she moved from her home country of Guatemala. So, whether she warns the other Bellas about the possibility of being kidnapped by drug lords, or jokes about her undocumented status, almost every one of Flo’s lines pokes crass fun at real issues concerning real Latin Americans.

Fortunately the entire movie isn’t depressing. The musical numbers work, and the centerpiece of the film – an extended “riff-off” elimination style contest in the middle – is as much fun as its counterpart from the original movie. The Bellas are invited to a clandestine competition by an eccentric, wealthy a cappella enthusiast. Really, is there any other kind of a cappella enthusiast? The mix of songs, and the flow created as one group must take up the singing from the last until only one remains is fun and well executed. You can tell everyone involved in the movie put a lot of time and effort into this sequence, and it’s easily the most enjoyable part of the movie. Unfortunately, these scenes don’t make up for the movie’s shortcomings.

Maybe, in the wake of the sequel, I’m romanticizing the first Pitch Perfect. That movie is charming and heart-felt in its own gross-out comedy way – featuring projectile vomit as a plot point, after all – that the second one abandons completely. The musical numbers provide a glimpse of what made its predecessor entertaining, but this installment suffocates from unwieldy performances and jokes that take more joy in laughing at people than with them. The original tune is worth the time, but you aren’t missing much by skipping the remix.