Sunday, May 17, 2015

Jimbo Goes to the Movies: "Pitch Perfect 2" (2015) Review

It's pretty much the exact same as the first movie. Yeah ... that's just about it. 

A lot of people erroneously refer to the first "Pitch Perfect" as a sleeper hit. In reality, the 2012 film severely under-performed at the box office, and it wasn't until Anna Kendrick and a set of plastic drinkware became an out-of-nowhere pop radio sensation that most people even discovered the movie. Thanks to the Netflix and constant cable screenings, the movie has indeed gone on to become something of a neo cult-classic, despite the fact that -- beyond a few fairly funny bits -- the motion picture itself just isn't all that good.

Well folks, "Pitch Perfect 2" isn't a worse film than the original, but it's certainly not an improved offering, either. The plot this time around is virtually interchangeable with the storyline from the first flick, and it even seems as if most of the jokes have just been reheated from the original and sprinkled with a bit more cheese to persuade us that we're seeing something new.To be fair, there are some decent moments in the film, but by and large, this is an astonishingly predictable, by-the-numbers, made-for-mass-consumption Hollywood sequel even for an industry that has more or less become wholly dependent on nothing but the formulaic.

The film begins identically to the original, with Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins trading un-P.C. barbs while announcing an a capella performance. Things are going just dandy for the reigning, defending national champion Barden Bellas, who have been asked to do a routine in front of the President and the First Lady (via some fairly unconvincing editing and even less believable stand-in performers) ... that is, until the crew's idiosyncratically obese singer ends up splitting her britches during an homage to Miley Cyrus, resulting in a "Muff Gate" scandal that puts the team on performance probation.

From there, we catch up with the mostly one-dimensional ensemble cast, who are in their senior year at the university. Team leader Beca (who is virtually indistinguishable from Kristen Stewart) is neglecting her a capella duties to focus on a new recording studio internship, while control freak Chloe (who looks about 15 years too old to be a sorority girl) tries to keep the rest of the ragtag group of stereotypes in line. As was the case with the latest "Avengers" flick, there are so many different characters to trudge through that hardly anybody gets an opportunity to truly develop or even demonstrate a broad array of emotion. In fact, there's such a surplus of characters in the film that two of the primary protagonists wind up having a combined one shared line of dialogue.

While the antagonists in the first film were a bunch of metrosexual preppies, the bad guys this time around are a gaggle of German nationalist techno-singers known as Das Sound Machine, which is actually commanded by a Dane (the admittedly gorgeous Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, whose statuesque Aryan-ness is almost enough to drive Beca to reconsider her sexuality.) While the Bellas are barred from national competitions, they are conveniently not prohibited from participating in a World Cup style international championship, which wouldn't you know it, just so happens to be occurring right then and there. After some abysmal warm-up shows (including a way too lengthy impromptu battle that, somehow, also involves David Cross and the Green Bay Packers defensive line-up), the Bellas decide to take a nature retreat to get back to basics, where they eventually learn that the only way to defeat post-modern German uber-efficiency is with some good-old-fashioned, multicultural soul-singing (which may or may not include guest appearances from Robin Roberts and Peg Bundy.)

Although the cast of "Pitch Perfect 2" is mostly female, I really wouldn't call this a movie that embraces anything even remotely resembling a feminist ideology. That's very strange, seeing as how it was both directed and written by women, and much of the humor seems to be derived from an understanding of flagrant misogyny is opposed to a criticism of it. Instead of celebrating the quirks and foibles of the main characters, the film almost seems to relish making fun of them; the characters are even formally introduced to the audience with one of the most mean-spirited jokes I've heard in a recent non-R-rated film, as an announcer describes them as a inspiration to "girls too ugly to be cheerleaders" across the nation.

If the odd tinglings of misogyny don't rankle you, the almost cringe-inducing ethno-racial  humor probably will. As often the case with Hollywood comedies of its ilk, the sole black protagonist in the movie (who also represents the LGBT masses) is pretty much reduced to nothing more than a prop for the other characters to display "humorous" ignorance, while the filmmakers waste no opportunity to trot out as many malaria, deportation and diarrhea jokes as possible at the expense of a Guatemalan character. The crew's token Asian -- whose moment of triumph in the first flick was making snow angels in a puddle of vomit -- does very little of note, other than utter creepy throwaway lines about sleeping like a bat, traveling in time, hiding pennies under her tongue and having all of her teeth come from different people. But it's Rebel Wilson's "Fat Amy" character who suffers the worst, with virtually every second of screen time connected to her never relinquishing an opportunity to make a crack about her weight (although this does lead to arguably the film's best line, when she says her obesity trumps her Australian accent when it comes to making here a true-blue U.S. citizen.)

You really don't need me to tell you how this one plays out. Of course, the Bellas make it to the international championships (it's supposed to be in Copenhagen, but to me, it looks a lot like Louisiana) and they best the Krauts in battle. With the graduation subplot leaving the door conveniently open for a number of cast members (most noticeably, an observably bored Anna Kendrick) to exit the franchise, it also gives ample room for new lead Hailee Steinfeld to become the focal point of "Pitch Perfect 3" (and seeing as how the film made $70 million domestically it's first weekend, you goddamn know there's going to be a "Pitch Perfect 3," and there's nothing any of us can do to stop it.)

Not all of the jokes in the film fall flat (frankly, I loved the bit about Natalie Imbruglia literally producing "white shit" and who doesn't want to see more Euro-trash, crypto-fascist German villains in contemporary cinema?) but as a whole, this movie struggles throughout. There's only so many jokes you can do with the a cappella shtick, and it seems like all of the good ones were already exhausted in part one. It's obvious that  the film wants to be a really aggressive satire a'la "Revenge of the Nerds," but the PG-13 rating really prevents the producers from going all-out. Frankly, there's not a whole lot more the filmmakers could have done with the premise, but at least pushing it into bawdier territory would have opened the creative floodgates open just a smidge wider.

Try as they may, "Pitch Perfect 2," as was its predecessor, is a below-average work. Glimmers of hope exist, but you can only get so many miles out of such a one-joke premise. Considering today's hyper-techno-social-media-diversity-uber-alles zeitgeist, there are plenty of opportunities out there for new-wave musical comedies (a sterling example would be Troma's unironically amazing "Poultrygeist!"), but the series to this point really hasn't made much of an effort to tackle any of today's truly pressing issues.

Alas, while the "Pitch Perfect" films may flirt with a few socially conscious notions, the franchise itself is just too cowardly and uncertain to live up to its own potential. Instead of having the ovaries to confront the hypocritical and hyperbolic moral outrage of today's college-aged social justice warriors, the film instead feels more like a Nickelodeon version of "Girls," this soft-serve ode to Facebook era ennui and Apple-branded consumer nihilism. Instead of reflecting and critiquing the times, "Pitch Perfect 2" feels content with simply celebrating its characters' own one-dimensional vapidity -- in short, turning itself into precisely the sort of instantly outdated pop cultural runoff that more sure-handed satires will no doubt mercilessly tear apart in the future.

My Score:

Two Tofu Dogs out of Four.

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