The first Pitch Perfect movie was a delightful surprise, a genuinely engaging comedy about the world of competitive a cappella performance, which I didn’t even know was a thing. My wife and I met singing in a choir; love vocal music, love Pentatonix and other similar groups, don’t mind hearing well done pop covers. The Bellas were an all-girl group of singers, with a lively sound and appealing characters. Plus, Anna Kendrick was in the movie. What’s not to enjoy?
Then the second PP movie came out, and it was even better. The obligatory (and irrelevant) romcom trappings that marred the first movie were gone, as the Bellas moved out of the college competitive circuit and competed for a notional world a cappella championship. Elizabeth Banks directed the second film, and turned it into a sprightly feminist comedy, a fun, funny, flick about bright, talented, dedicated young women who liked, and were very good at, singing together. Plus, their foil, the film’s antagonists, were the superbly funny paean to continental pretentiousness, Das Sound Machine, all Teutonic arrogant hipsters. Their big music numbers proved a perfect foil for the Bellas, making our spunky heroines’ ultimate victory all the more satisfying.
Sadly, Pitch Perfect 3 feels more like a cash grab than a satisfying continuation (or resolution) of the Bellas’ story. While it has the elements of the two previous movies–competing ensembles, riff-offs, well-produced musical numbers for all occasions–it feels self conscious, annoyingly (as opposed to instructively) meta. Case in point: the previous movies cut repeatedly to two unnecessarily dismissive commentators, Gail (Elizabeth Banks) and John (John Michael Higgins), covering the Bellas’ competitions for some media outlet or another. They’re back in this movie, and we’re told they’re making a Bellas documentary. But this time, they’re intrusive, unnecessary, and worst of all, sort of aggressively unfunny. Banks directed PP2, the best film of the series; it was sad to see her in this throw-away role.
In the previous movies, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), added her own hair-brained comedic emphasis to the movies, though really, we wondered if she was a good enough singer to add much to a group of musicians. This movie, she was given much more to do, to the detriment of the movie. And so, we’re treated to a kidnapping plot involving her estranged father (John Lithgow), which makes no sense, and felt like padding, some silly farcical elements added to push the movie’s length to an acceptable 90 minutes.
The movie did give a bit more emphasis to other Bellas, to Chloe (Brittany Snow), Aubrey (Anna Camp), Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), and especially, to splendidly spooky Lily (Hana Mae Lee). As the movie opens, they’re all post-graduation, unhappy in their jobs and lives and desperate to reunite, doing the one thing they loved most. That’s a nice idea, and the movie could have done something with it; show the tension between the difficult disciplines they’re trying to master professionally, and the need to rehearse and perform. It could have been a movie about young people maturing, making adult choices in life, how tough it can be to move past youthful passions to more grown-up life decisions. Chloe wants to be a veterinarian; couldn’t we have seen her stealing a moment from a much-needed rehearsal to review for her vets exam?
But no. In fact, the Bellas never rehearse at all in this iteration of their story. Which reminds us, sadly, of the power and importance of their rehearsal scenes in the previous movies.
Part of their rehearsal involves their riff-offs, scenes in which they have to improvise arrangements and sharpen their repertoire competing with other a cappella musicians. Those scenes were the highlights of the previous two movies; lively and fun and creative.
In this movie, they’re competing for a slot on a USO tour featuring DJ Khaled. Three bands are likewise seeking a performing slot, a country band, a rapper, and a girl-group who call themselves EverMoist. Presumably, EverMoist is meant to be the Bellas’ main competition, this film’s equivalent to Das Sound Machine. Whoever made that decision, it was a big fail. EverMoist isn’t just musically mediocre, they’re unamusingly mediocre. They don’t mean anything, or stand for anything, except the mean girl poses favored by their singers. And why would these three bands, representing, one presumes, different musical styles, all be good at riff-offs? It makes no sense, and this film’s riff-off scene is among its most flaccid.
And yet. The film does have Anna Kendrick, and she’s so charming as a performer, she nearly makes up for how disappointing the script is generally. Her scenes with putative love interest Theo (Guy Burnett) are so sharply fun, they help us forget how obnoxious an un-reigned-in Rebel Wilson can be. At the end of the film, DJ Khaled decides that Beca is the only Bella worth touring with, and gives her the prized slot opening for him. Her, but not the Bellas. And the other Bellas are sweet about it, and decide they’re all perfectly happy with the lives they had previously found so unsatisfying; she can go ahead and be a star, and they’re cool with it. (Ha!). But then, Beca sings a lovely arrangement of the great George Michael song, Freedom. And, of course, the Bellas join her onstage. And while their performance wasn’t great–as my wife correctly suggested, the point isn’t for performers to have a good time, it’s for the audience to be entertained–still, it was solid. That final song was well enough done to make up for the flabby, disappointing movie that proceeded it. So there’s that.
Pitch Perfect 3 has some okay music, some poorly executed farce, and a final performance that somewhat redeems a sadly flabby movie. I don’t regret seeing it; I’m sorry it wasn’t better.