Elizabeth Banks makes a credible directing debut with a riotous, even more female-driven sequel to the 2012 hit.
When Beyonce’s brisk female-empowerment jam “Run the World (Girls)” kicks off a key musical number in “Pitch Perfect 2,” it plays as something of a mission statement for the film itself: Both behind and in front of the camera, women call every shot of consequence in this ebulliently entertaining, arguably superior sequel to the 2012 musical comedy hit. Continuing the bawdy misadventures of all-girl college a cappella group the Barden Bellas — this time as they get their motley act together on a global stage — Kay Cannon’s script is even lighter on narrative than its predecessor, but fills any resulting void with a concentrated supply of riotous gags, and a renewed emphasis on the virtues of female collaboration and independence. Actress-producer Elizabeth Banks’ eminently credible feature directing debut should, in its own parlance, crush it at the global box office, sustaining a franchise with potential to outlive the “Glee” fever that inspired it.
In a typically testosterone-heavy summer movie landscape, “Pitch Perfect 2” stands out not just for its expanded female ensemble, but for passing the Bechdel test on a scene-to-scene basis. While the first film hinged heavily on battle-of-the-sexes friction, the returning male characters here have largely been relegated to afterthought status: Save for a pair of sweet, swiftly resolved romantic subplots, men are often the furthest thing from the sequel’s mind, as post-graduation questions of career and self-sufficiency weigh heavily on the Bellas. A degree of democratization, meanwhile, has taken place within their ranks. If Anna Kendrick’s aspiring music producer Beca is still the ostensible protagonist of the piece, it’s only by a hair: Rebel Wilson, the brash breakout star of “Pitch Perfect” three years ago, benefits from a beefed-up role this time that amply accommodates her improvisatory abilities, while new recruit Hailee Steinfeld is afforded the most sympathetic arc as the youngest inheritor of the group’s self-described legacy.
The creative twinning of Steinfeld’s character with Kendrick’s — she is the songwriter to the latter’s musical director — makes it clear from the outset that the “True Grit” star is being groomed as the anchoring lead for future sequels. With any luck, those installments will ask more of the franchise’s commendable spread of minority Bellas, who are still underused here: Soft-spoken Korean eccentric Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) and new Latin American exchange student Flo (Chrissie Fit) are one-joke props, albeit funny ones, while Ester Dean’s African-American belter Cynthia Rose identifies as a lesbian only in the most cautious terms.
Happily, “caution” is rarely the operative word of a film that begins with a spectacular vagina-related pratfall and maintains that level of cheerful impertinence throughout. Three years have passed since the Bellas became national a cappella champions, and they’ve held that title ever since; now all in their senior year (including Brittany Snow’s dim-bulb former leader Chloe, so wedded to the group that she’s stubbornly staying a seventh year in college), they are eager to go out with a bang. Not quite the bang, however, that follows a botched Lincoln Center performance for President Obama — featured in cheekily unconvincing cutaways — that culminates in an accidental onstage crotch reveal by the self-styled Fat Amy (Wilson). The ensuing media furor, hilariously branded “Muffgate,” sees the girls vilified from all sides: A celebrity cameo-studded news montage, sharply handled by Banks, neatly sends up the pervasive, social media-fueled “outrage culture” of the moment.
To add injury to insult, the Bellas are stripped of their showcase performing duties by the conservative gatekeepers of America’s college a cappella league, once more deliciously played by Banks herself and Christopher Guest alum John Michael Higgins, whose blithely bigoted asides count for many of the pic’s heartiest laughs. (“This is what happens when you send girls to college,” he remarks, with a toothpaste grin.) Taking the girls’ place are European favorites Das Sound Machine, a militarized co-ed troupe of Teutonic giants in formidable fetish gear, whose repertoire of stiffly accented ’90s hip-hop staples (“Zis Is How Ve Do It,” “Insane In Ze Membrane”) doesn’t get any less amusing with frequent repetition. Beating these “Deutschbags” at the looming World Championships in Copenhagen — an unprecedented feat for a U.S. team — reps the Bellas’ only shot at redemption.
First, however, there’s some internal tension to be resolved, mostly revolving around Beca’s covert internship at a recording studio manned by a fearsome, Grammy-laden producer, played with inspired comic sadism by the excellent Keegan-Michael Key. (Beca’s steady relationship with Skylar Astin’s Jesse, her puppyish love interest from the first film, merits markedly little screen time here; career comes first for this heroine.) With the Bellas seeking to regain both their collective mojo and Beca’s drifting commitment, cue a series of haphazardly connected training montages and sing-offs — one of them an affair of “Zoolander”-level absurdity mediated by, of all people, David Cross (here billed under his Sir Willups Brightslymoore persona). Meanwhile, gawky college junior Emily (Steinfeld), a second-generation Bella encouraged by her overeager mom (Katey Sagal), shyly attempts to steer the group from karaoke covers to original material.
Thus does the film take the worthy stance that endurance lies in innovation, though Cannon’s somewhat indifferently structured script isn’t always its own best example: There’s a fair amount of rehashed material here, not just from “Pitch Perfect” but from every let’s-put-on-a-show musical from the era of Busby Berkeley to “Step Up.” Such reservations seems strictly academic, however, when viewed against the whole’s sheer volume of hilarity. Cannon’s wicked one-liners (“This could be the most significant conflict between America and Germany in history”) are in even greater abundance this time, while Banks, taking over from previous helmer Jason Moore, handles goofy physical setpieces with fizzy aplomb: A waterborne duet of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” between Fat Amy and would-be b.f. Bumper (Adam Devine, aces) is a particular gem. No prizes for guessing that the irrepressible Wilson once more poaches most of her scenes with her dryly lascivious line readings and impromptu Down Underisms, but there isn’t one idle member in the film’s uniformly sparky ensemble.
Tech credits are uniformly pro: A few split-screen sequences represent the extent of Banks’ visual risk-taking, but Denault’s crayon-bright lensing and Salvador Perez’s witty, frisky costumes lift things out of televisual territory. Musically, perhaps, “Pitch Perfect 2” isn’t quite as infectious as its predecessor. There’s a canned-sounding quality to certain early performances (which, as with “Glee,” are about as authentically a cappella as Milli Vanilli), while few of the song selections and mashups match the ingenuity of Kendrick’s “When I’m Gone,” a viral phenomenon from the first film that is cannily reprised here. Still, like the Bellas, the film digs deep when it matters, and a climactic performance of Emily’s original ballad “Flashlight” (custom-written by Sia and Sam Smith, no less) is rousing in spite of its own saccharine obviousness. As with so much that’s right about the “Pitch Perfect” formula, it’s the singers, not the song.