Pitch Perfect 3   (2017) dir. Trish Sie Rated: PG-13 image: ©2017  Universal Pictures

Pitch Perfect 3 (2017)
dir. Trish Sie
Rated: PG-13
image: ©2017 Universal Pictures

If the marketing material for Pitch Perfect 3 – the tag line is “Last Call, Pitches” – is to be believed, this is the swan song for a series that’s generated a sizable cult following. In this latest outing, the saga of the Barden Bellas ends not with a bang, but not exactly with a whimper. I have to damn Pitch Perfect 3 with a heaping helping of faint praise. It’s just okay. The movie is, thankfully, nothing like the complete disaster that Pitch Perfect 2 was, yet it never captures the elements that made the original so charming and so memorable.

This time around, the members of our favorite competitive collegiate a-cappella singing group are finding that post-college life, a.k.a. the real world, isn’t everything they had hoped it would be. Beca quits her dream job in frustration. She’s a music producer, and the “artist” she’s working with insists that they scrap her mix of his newest song in favor of his terrible, sloppy version. She can’t handle the constant ass-kissing and ego-stroking that the job entails. Chloe is finding the path to veterinarian school to be tougher, and more disgusting, than she thought it would be. Flo hasn’t found a stable job, so she’s working at a food truck to make ends meet. Meanwhile, Fat Amy, who is rooming with Beca, is a struggling street artist who puts on her own show as “Fat Amy Winehouse.”

The group is brought even lower when one of the members who is still in college, Emily, invites them all to what they think will be a chance to perform together again. Emily awkwardly informs them that she only invited them to watch the current Barden Bellas put on their newest routine, not to instigate a reunion. A glimmer of hope shines, though, when the friends commiserate at a bar after the show. One member, Aubrey, has a connection to an annual USO music competition in Europe. If she can get them in, it will be just like old times. They all jump at the chance, and we’re off to witness hijinks in exotic lands.

Except, the hijinks are staid, the exotic lands are anything but exotic, and the humor is chuckle-worthy at best.

The biggest problem with the locale is that the movie never delivers on the promise of a gorgeous European adventure. The production might not have had the kind of budget it needed to pull off a true overseas travelogue. Once the Bellas make it to their destination, they, and we, are stuck on a series of US military bases for most of the movie. We catch glimpses of the City of Light, but the main set pieces of the picture are confined to those bases, a night club, and on board a private yacht.

The signature of the series, the extended a-cappella “riff-offs,” is cut in half in Pitch Perfect 3, because writers Kay Cannon and Mike White decided to up the ante. The Bellas compete for the first time against musicians who use instruments and perform original songs. There is one sequence in which everyone plays along with the a-cappella conceit, and it’s the best of the movie. The Bellas throw down a medley that includes infectious arrangements of R. Kelly’s Ignition and Dr. Dre’s Let Me Ride. This contest culminates in the most ridiculous riff-off theme suggestion ever: songs by artists you didn’t know were Jewish (and yes, of course a Lenny Kravitz song makes an appearance).

When the Bellas don’t get cooperation from their USO tour rivals, though, the musical sequences become tired and boring. We’re hearing songs we don’t know (half the fun of the music in Pitch Perfect is hearing familiar tunes rendered in a-cappella) delivered in a style that isn’t particularly catchy. In fact, most of these songs are akin to something you might expect on the level of a Nickleback; they’re indistinct rock/pop ballads that disappear from your memory as soon as the next song starts.

The most laudable thing about the laughs in Pitch Perfect 3 is that Cannon and White abandoned the mean-spirited jokes that permeated the second entry in the series. The brand of humor on display in Pitch Perfect 2 was vicious, and took delight in kicking the marginalized. That sensibility is nowhere to be found here, much to the movie’s credit.

While the good-natured jokes are a breath of fresh air, they didn’t inspire guffaws from me. One of the highlights from the first two movies, Lilly, is back, but her bizarre under-her-breath confessions are almost completely absent. There is a delightful series of exchanges between Lilly and a member of a competitor group who is as socially awkward as she is. One plot line involves a potential love interest for Becca. He’s also a music producer, and despite the movie trying to set it up as a major element, the chemistry between actors Anna Kendrick and Guy Burnet is non-existent, and the love story fizzles as a result.

Other plotlines similarly never quite get off the ground. John Lithgow turns up doing the world’s worst Australian accent as Fat Amy’s estranged father, Fergus. His deeds provide the comical bookends of the movie which involve an escape attempt.

There is also a head-scratching plot point that serves as the reason for the USO competition. Real-life musician DJ Khaled (I confess, I had heard the name, but I couldn’t tell you anything about him) is sponsoring the competition. He will select the winner, and the prize is opening for Khaled on an upcoming tour. The most charitable way I can describe Khaled’s acting ability is that it doesn’t seem to be his true calling. Frankly, it’s weird that Cannon and White made him the center of their movie. It feels like a gimmicky synergy strategy, and Washington Post writer Emily Yahr tackles why the movie feels like a 90-minute advertisement for Khaled here.

The thing that is most lacking from Pitch Perfect 3 is the bit of magic from the original that would have been hardest to re-create. There is no moment that even approaches the memorable scene in Pitch Perfect when fresh-faced Becca sits alone on a stage with a single cup and sings a tune to audition for the Bellas. That sense of performing for the sheer joy of it never comes across in this last installment. It does have a fair amount of harmless fun, though, which should never be discounted.

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Why it got 3 stars:
- While it's harmless fun, and there is indeed fun to be had here, Pitch Perfect 3 is middling at best. The laughs aren't big enough for me to recommend going out of your way to see it. If you're a big fan of the series, though, you'll most likely enjoy it.

Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The banter between the John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks characters is the most strained of the series. They play commentators for every a-cappella competition and in this outing they are making a documentary about the Barden Bellas, and how each member is a failure. To say that they are shoehorned into this movie is an understatement.
- Director Trish Sie has been forced to defend the decision to make Pitch Perfect 3 "female-centric." That's an idiotic criticism to level against a movie. You never hear anyone call out the other 98% of movies for being "male-centric." That being said, I really did miss the a-cappella-loving dudes who usually show up to spar musically with the Bellas. Especially that idiot Bumper.

Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- The screening I attended was about 20% press and 80% Pitch Perfect die-hards. The room was buzzing with excitement, and the crowd was really into it. It was a great atmosphere in which to see the movie. I just wish I had a more positive personal experience with it.

Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- I was 13 years old when Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding gained world-wide fame outside of figure skating circles. This notorious event from my childhood is being dramatized in the new movie I, Tonya, with Margot Robbie in the title role. The most interesting thing about the movie is that it's being played as almost straight comedy.