Pitch Perfect 2 (****1/2) makes it look easy

Pitch-Perfect-2

Director Elizabeth Banks
Starring Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Hailee Steinfeld, Skylar Astin, Ben Platt, Adam DeVine, Alexis Knapp, Flula Borg, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Hana Mae Lee, Ester Dean, Anna Camp, Keegan-Michael Key, Katey Segal John Michael Higgins, Elizabeth Banks, Chrissie Fit
Screenplay Kay Cannon

The people responsible for the sequel to the surprise hit from 2013 have a gift. They have taken the relatively sparse world of comedy about women accessible for all and they’ve made it look easy. There are plenty of things one can expect from a comedy sequel. There are twists on jokes from the first film: some times one line and at times pushed out a little farther. There is more singing. There are more riff offs. There are parties by the pool. There is a challenge for the team to overcome. There are hills for each character to climb. There is an extended version of Cups.

Remarkably, they Elizabeth Banks, Kay Cannon, Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow and company have managed to avoid making any of it seem stale. About the closes they come to disaster is int the opening act. Once they steer out of those murky waters, the sailing is smooth. So smooth, in fact, there is nary a ripple on the an ocean of deep emotional territory. How this happens is clear to anyone who’s found a good woman in their time on earth.

The story starts with a performance at the The Kennedy Center that goes awry. In a confluence of events that can only happen when one is searching for a plot, the girls are taken out of contention to defend their 3rd defense of their a capella college championship. Not to worry, within the same sequence, they are told that they are still in contention for the world championship. There is other stuff in the terms of their suspension, like no victory tour, the national anthem at the puppy bowl and no auditions. Even more randomly, Emily (Steinfeld) has wandered onto the Barden campus with her mom (Segal) who was a Bella herself. This makes Emily a convenient legacy member of the group.

Good for us, as limiting the new blood allows us to see more of the original cast. Everyone gets moments to shine, and for the most part they are not wasted, except for Alexis Knapp, who is limited to a couple of lines. The only other newbie of note is Chrissie Fit, playing a Guatemalan immigrant with a past that always beats any horrible experience the Bellas are now have.

The Bellas main competition this time is a German group called Das Sound Machine. It’s a safe choice, as they are mean, but not too mean. Still, Kendrick’s reactions to their taunts make the experience more worthwhile. The Trebelmakers, still with Astin, Platt and DeVine serve mainly as a stable of dates for the Bellas. That is a shame when it comes to Astin, as he doesn’t do much. Platt and DeVine have several sweet moments with their counterparts, Steinfeld and Wilson. This only serves to make the story more of a wonder. Most films wouldn’t allow someone as awkwardly sweet as Platt as much as five minutes with someone of Steinfeld’s caliber. DeVine, who threatened to run away with the last film, is brought back in with restraints that barely contain him. Don’t worry, though. Banks has a directorial genius that allows everyone their moment in the best way possible.

Steinfeld is remarkably deft in her role as the fresh-faced Emily. The relationship with her mother is covered in just 3 short scenes with a tenderness, beauty and humour that is hard to encompass in most comedies. Her story fits comfortably in the spot that Kendrick’s Beca possessed first time around. Her journey is paralleled by and eventually merges with Beca’s further pursuit into the world of production.

Wilson’s character has most of the good lines once again. There is a slightly better balance with the fat jokes this time. The whole thing is probably a matter of taste though. As much as I cringe at the easiness with which physical appearance is criticised in this film, it is never shown to be a crippling thing to the characters. So many of their actions that surround these moments are kind and considerate of the feelings of their friends, one can’t feel too badly about them. Especially when there’s an absurdly good ginger joke thrown in now and then.

Snow’s Chloe seems a little more uptight this time, but my wife said it felt close to the first film. Delightfully, Anna Camp’s Aubrey Posen comes back with a wonderful evolution of her own character to counter that. So deep is the reservoir of character in the Pitch Perfect universe that we’ve really just touched the surface…and still have yet to talk about the music.

Ah, the music. There is another incredible array of staccato songs that merge seamlessly, sounding fresh and historic all at once. The riff off this time is expertly presented as an absurd contest run by David Cross in a performance that I actually enjoyed for once. The contestants include a who’s who of the Daily Show, as well, inexplicably, a group of the Green Bay Packers including Clay Matthews. It all works and is fun as hell. My personal favorite cover is Anyway You Want It. Finally a Journey song that is not Don’t Stop Believin.

The musical centerpiece is – surprise – a powerful song by Sia called Flashlight. It’s a somewhat daunted theme posed as an original work by Emily. The beauty of the song’s content matched by the story behind it, all leading to a crescendo that left both me and my wife in tears, and our daughters’ wondering why the heck mom and dad would cry during a comedy.

The thing about this film is how easy it all seems for them to make a great comedy. If it were easy, we could name more than 2 great comedies in any year since, well, ever. The trick they do so well is that these people are all funny, but they are all decent to one another. This is not a series of extremes, but so many funny lines that one might see from their own life and friendships. People who are in the film are not wedged in except for one cleverly handled instance. For some, it really might be worth flunking Russian Lit 3 times to stay on this scene.

The kindness mixed with sharp jabs is something that can only come from extraordinarily creative souls. Thank God for that. As the father of two future women and the husband of a current one, watching this with them was doubly entertaining for me. There is plenty in the story to entertain an 8-year-old, a 12-year-old and their parents. Banks and Cannon have enough wisdom to allow the age ranges converge into something entertaining to all of them, but offensive to none. Well, no so long as one of the parents is there to answer questions for the clever kids.

If this is the last film this crew makes, it’s almost a shame. Better to go out on top, one might believe. The story and characters evolved enough, it might be interesting to see where the creative minds decide to take the Bellas beyond college.Our family will definitely be there if they do. I love that my girls have a series of films about people to which they can relate.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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