Saturday 23 May 2015

Offkey: "Pitch Perfect 2"

2012's Pitch Perfect hit at the right moment: just as Glee was losing its mojo, thereby reminding us that it was still possible to broach the performative aspects of pop culture in sharp, funny, irreverent ways. With Pitch Perfect 2, this franchise - for franchise it has become - can no longer be taken for a plucky underdog, in so far as a Universal-sponsored multiplex product set in opposition to a Fox-sponsored primetime juggernaut could ever truly be claimed as an underdog; success, and savvy marketing, has placed it at the very heart of the mainstream. Returning screenwriter Kay Cannon has, then, to address an issue time-honoured within popular culture: how to deal with going, in just two years, from punky new kid on the block to reigning queen bee (or Bey) without losing some edge, or attracting claims of selling out? (And does a major studio's Glee clone have anything really to sell out?)

The solution Cannon has decides upon, which feels sorta evasive and far from satisfactory, is to shift everybody onto a bigger stage. Pitch Perfect 2 is the point where a sitcom rewards its cast for their loyalty by sending them off on holiday with not-exactly-hilarious consequences. As a sequel, it appears hamstrung rather than emboldened by the knowledge the first film eventually found its audience: it's too relaxed for its own good. Debutant director Elizabeth Banks - whose onscreen commentary partnership with John Michael Higgins remains a Chris Guest-like delight - plays denmother to her young performers in more or less the same way that her 40-Year-Old Virgin director Judd Apatow plays head bro: she creates a safe space within which the actors can spitball ideas around, and seems oblivious to the fact the running time is pushing on for two hours.

In and around the randomness that has latterly become American comedy's default position, there are occasional sharp lines: handed the category "Songs About Butts" in one sing-off, head Bella Beca (Anna Kendrick) suggests "So that's anything in the charts, right?" Yet set PP2 against 22 Jump Street, another comedy follow-up that seized upon its own essential sequelness, and the new film appears oddly bereft of purpose. The idea of exiling the Bellas to Europe after Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) has a wardrobe mishap in front of the President is a workable one, and floated early, yet for some reason (budgetary stinginess?) there's a good eighty minutes before we get to Copenhagen, and 70 minutes of that - broadly, the time between a rare funny Snoop cameo and Fat Amy's triumphant reclamation of Pat Benatar's "We Belong" - are a comic and narrative dead zone.

Worse, the time the film spends shuffling around on home turf only reveals how limited these characters are as comic possibilities: that though they may harmonise well together, as individuals, they have only one note to play. Wilson can still work funny-strange, funny-ha ha variations on Amy's basic, spacey-libidinous theme, but the lesser Bellas have become predictable: we know that whenever Banks cuts to the Mexican Bella, she'll have something heated to say about the migrant's lot, and whenever she cuts to the Asian Bella, she'll be meekly whispering something weird. Mock it all you want, but Glee has done so much more to push its characters beyond stereotypes. 

In the sing-off sequences, you catch Pitch Perfect 2 regaining some of the earlier film's focus and choreography, yet even these are limited by the fact the sound of pop hasn't developed significantly in the past two years, not to mention by the Universal suits' insistence that Banks cross-promote the largely joy-sapping output of Ke$ha and Jason Derulo. She enters into more of a groove in the final stretch, it's true - Copenhagen has no place for mediocrity - yet relying upon the emotion and artistry of other artists' songs to elevate otherwise flagging material is a trick Glee has been relying upon for several seasons now. In the course of a two-hour, single-sitting experience, it just feels like the one potential hit buried away at the very end of a quickly forgotten second album.

Pitch Perfect 2 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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