Pitch Perfect 2 begins with a plus-size comedienne accidentally exposing her nether regions to the POTUS and the viewing public, in the midst of an a cappella performance. Indeed, the film’s opening set piece, in which “Fat Amy” (Rebel Wilson) dangles upside-down from the ceiling above a massive stage, her costume ripped open, waiting for the inevitable moment when the harness spins forward, represent the film’s most nail-biting moment of dramatic tension.
The remaining 110 minutes or so of Pitch Perfect 2 allegedly center on Fat Amy’s a cappella group, the Bellas, and their attempt to bounce back from this ignominy. Yet despite such hurdles as leader Beca (Anna Kendrick) being busy with a music-label internship, and newcomer Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) being comically awkward as she finds her footing, there’s never any question about where the Bellas are headed; straight to glorious redemption. This will come in the form of a world-championship a cappella tournament, usually handily captured by a group of terrifyingly precise, black-clad German a cappella champions called Das Sound Machine.
It’s difficult to get overly critical about a film that contains almost no major conflicts. The entire thing plays in the key of G: goofy, good natured, giggly, occasionally gross. Even the menacing Das Sound Machine, allegedly the villains of the film, can’t be rendered as fully evil. “Your sweat smells like cinnamon!” a suddenly sexually confused Beca calls out, in one of many diss attempts thwarted by her own attraction to her Aryan arch-nemeses.
Yet the film is also rightly hailed as something of a feminist triumph based on its implosion of the “slacker-striver” dynamic that Judd Apatow’s early work exemplified, wherein all the goofy immaturity, and therefore all the laughs, belonged to men — leaving the straight women to be, well, the straight women. In the Pitch Perfect franchise, the women are allowed — nay, encouraged — to be as weird, awkward, and flatulent as they please, with the equally silly men orbiting around the sun of Rebel Wilson’s unbelievably game, compelling, comedic performance that ranges from pure slapstick to more subtle line readings. It’s a shame that some of the secondary characters’ weirdness relies on one-note racial stereotypes, an oversight that is made less offensive because of the sheer verve with which the cast approaches its roles.
Pitch Perfect exists in a fantasyland that turns a cappella into something like popular rock or hip hop — essentially, the geeks rule the world. The a cappella kids have houses that look like frat digs and party wildly around a swimming pool; the world championship looks exactly like Coachella or Glastonbury; the girls prepare via Rocky-style training montage that takes place on a low ropes course; and at the record label, Beca proves her worthiness over young hipsters in cool glasses. I’m not quite sure what subversive message this all serves, given that the musical form’s origins are in the province of white prepsters at Ivy League colleges. But given the wild theatrics of the a cappella depicted here and the explosion of the a cappella scene since the first Pitch Perfect became a phenomenon, it’s clear that the music here works as a symbolic stand-in for everything nerdy, earnest, and joyfully intense.
Some of the best humor comes when the film takes detours away from campus and competitions; the record label’s studio is as much a parody of start-up culture as of the music world, and Keegan-Michael Key leans in hard to his role as the CEO who can’t remember anyone’s name and forces his employees to run laps when they say stupid things. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Banks (who directed the film from a script by Kay Cannon) and John Michael Higgins reprise their roles as utterly amoral commentators, with Banks as an exasperated foil for Higgins’ outdated sexist quips. This is all very amusing, some of it slightly sharper than the rest. Mostly, though, it’s pleasant to see a mainstream yet slightly off-kilter comedy franchise that is carried by a group of women and so clearly beloved by its audience. If we’re living at the dawn of the feminist comedy era, it’s worth paying for tickets to help make Pitch Perfect 2 a box office smash, so this cultural era gains as much momentum as Fat Amy in her now-obligatory “Crushed it!” tumble down the stairs of the Bellas’ mansion.