Review: Bumpy ‘Pitch Perfect 2’ soars when it sings

Joss Whedon can tell you about how hard it is to make a sequel that matches the creative heights of its predecessor, especially a beloved one.  The “Avengers” filmmaker was forced to juggle studio priorities alongside fan expectations with “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”  Whedon, at least to this critic, wasn't able to match the first film's energy or euphoria, but another summer sequel, “Pitch Perfect 2,” manages to come much closer to pulling off that delicate dance. Much of the credit has to go to Elizabeth Banks who makes her directorial debut with the highly anticipated flick and the results will leave you wanting more (well, more singing at least).

When we last left the Barton Bellas, the collegiate singing group had gone from underdogs to national champions.  Our heroines are now Queens of A Cappella and singing at the Kennedy Center in front of the President of the United States, the First Lady and a nationally televised audience.  Right when they appear to be finishing another successful performance, Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) has a “malfunction” during an aerial portion of the program and her private parts are displayed for the entire world to see.  It's silly stuff, but sets a tone that the movie's main plotline is going to be pure escapist entertainment and nothing more.

Now awash in controversy, the Bellas receive a harsh punishment from the a cappella governing body and the President of their university: they can no longer finish their national tour and are banned from taking on new members. The Bellas only saving grace is that they are still allowed to represent the United States at the World Championships of A Cappella in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Of course, the United States hasn't won in decades so, clearly, the Bellas don't have much a chance. No matter, our favorite singers know what its like to be on the bottom and are on a mission to find redemption by beating their previously unknown rivals, Das Sound Machine.

18 members strong, Das Sound Machine is Germany's premier a cappella group and, frankly, a lot of fun to watch considering they are the “bad guys.” Sure, they feel slightly dated owing a great deal to the clichés of '90s electronic dance music and stereotypical German arrogance (think Mike Myers' “Sprockets” sketch from “Saturday Night Live”), but the performances of Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Kommissar and Flula Borg as Pieter Kramer are so over the top and so good you that you forget its 2015 and just go with it (whether German audiences will feel the same way is up for debate).  The Bellas decide to go scout their new competition at a local auto show, a gig that was supposed to be part of their own tour (and also one of the film's blatant product tie-ins).  They quickly discover Das is the real deal and Chloe (Brittany Snow) is already panicking on how the Bellas can up their game to beat them.

Don't worry fans, as we noted earlier, “Pitch Perfect 2's” trajectory is pretty predictable and for much of the proceedings an unhappy ending is simply unfathomable.  Screenwriter Kay Cannon returns after adapting the original non-fiction novel, but her ideas are much less inspiring this time around.  Beca (Anna Kendrick) is still the center of the Bellas, but her conflict over her internship at a local musical house is only memorable thanks to Keegan-Michael Key's hilarious turn as a Grammy-winning producer who cannot deal with his hipster-millennial staff (Beca not withstanding). It”s hard to care about whether Beca will tell the Bellas about her new gig because it so silly that she”d keep it a secret from them in the first place.

Like “Age of Ultron,” “Pitch Perfect 2” biggest problem is that it wants to give you more of everything.  For instance, a good deal of screen time is devoted to the burgeoning romance between Fat Amy and Bumper (Adam Devine) and while it resolves itself in a charming fashion it doesn't hide the fact that Wilson's shtick just isn't as funny three years later.  Hana Mae Lee's soft-spoken Lilly often falls flat as well. The only additions by addition that really work are Chrissie Fit who steals a lot of Wilson's thunder as the group's token Hispanic member Flo (she appears to have joined the Bellas in-between films) and Hailee Steinfeld as new freshman legacy member Emily.  Steinfeld's character is meant to signify the next generation of Bellas, but it turns out to be the most charismatic work the Oscar nominee has done since her breakout in “True Grit” (you might actually believe Steinfeld has starpower after this movie).

While it might reflect poorly on some of the returning cast members, Banks is incredibly smart in bringing in talented supporting actors like Key and David Cross who plays a bizarre, but wealthy a cappella super fan.  Many of the one-liners they deliver will go completely over younger viewers heads, but Banks lets these actors have just enough freedom to give the film an edge the Bellas' can't.  She also smartly gives more screen time to returning a cappella commentators Gail and John (once again played by herself and John Michael Higgins) who have become masterful at delivering one hilarious sexual innuendo joke after another.  

Where Banks truly excels is in directing the film's musical numbers. There are times when the Bellas are supposed to be bad, but when they are meant to shine?  Boy, do they shine bright like a diamond.  Banks saves the best for last during the Bellas' big moment at the World Championships as they sing a beautiful new song, “Flashlight” written by Sia, Sam Smith and Christian Guzman with additional lyrics by Jason Moore.  It”s a goosebumps moment that leaves you with such a wonderful feeling you might forget the bumpy road that got you there in the first place.

“Pitch Perfect 2” opens nationwide on May 15.