Monday, June 29, 2015

'Pitch Perfect 2' Is Good But Not Great, and That's Okay

I'm not going to oversell this movie to you guys - it's good, but it's not great. It's a really entertaining film, the kind of movie that you won't regret seeing but also that probably won't change your life. A perfectly acceptable Friday night movie. Or a Thursday night movie. You get what I mean. It's above average but definitely less spectacular and life-changing than the original. And you know what? 

I am totally okay with that.

Well, I am and I'm not. But I mostly am. I still maintain and believe strongly that every film should strive to make the best movie it possibly can. I have no sympathy for those who don't try. But it doesn't really feel like this movie didn't try. It feels like the writers and producers and director of Pitch Perfect 2 tried a lot, and came up with a movie that was pretty good, just not amazing. That's okay.

What makes me thrilled about this movie is not actually how good it is, but the very fact that it got made at all. I mean, we have to remember here that Pitch Perfect 2 is a sequel to Pitch Perfect, and that it's a sequel to a female ensemble comedy about college a capella competitions. I'm just saying, a few years ago none of this could even believe this would happen. The very concept of a female driven comedy being so successful it spawned a kind of mediocre sequel was unheard of.

And I know I'm kind of making a big deal here, but it's true. For a long time it seems like female media, especially comedy, has had to be exceptional to get any attention. Female-driven comedies in particular have had to be revolutionary or surprising or wonderful in order to get people to go see them. Hollywood has had this idea that unless a film is straight-up genius, no one will watch women be funny in it.

Well, Pitch Perfect 2 isn't genius, quite frankly, but it still got made and it made a buttload of money. Enough money that they're talking about making a third one. And you know what? I'm totally cool with that.

I want to reach this milestone. I want the idea of a super-successful lady comedy franchise to not be shocking anymore. I want us to just recognize how normal and pleasant this is now. I mean, we get to be living through the "summer of the female-lead comedy" right now, and that's awesome. Spy and Pitch Perfect 2 and Ricki and the Flash and Trainwreck and Grandma are all big name comedies coming out this summer, and that makes me really happy.

So, in general, before we even get to the review, I want us to take a minute and be happy. We've finally gotten to the place where we can admit how female-lead comedies are good and sometimes not, can be successful or mediocre, but that they're not a bad investment, and that one mediocre film doesn't mean no woman will ever be funny. Let's be happy and then put it to rest so we can move on with our lives. 

Good? Good.

Okay, so the actual movie itself is, like I said above, not bad. Could be worse. It's basically a remix of the first one in a lot of ways, but I like the original, so I could be more bothered by that.

The basic premise is pretty simple: after dominating the college a capella scene for a few years and winning two more national championships, the Bellas are on top of the world. At least until a performance for the President goes horribly awry and Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson, still hilarious) accidentally flashes her vagina to the world. After that, the Bellas are aca-outcasts, with the collegiate a capella board ruling that they are no longer eligible to compete for the national title.

But there's a loophole, one that a desperate Chloe (Brittany Snow) quickly finds: they can't compete in the national competition, but they do still have a place competing in the world a capella championship if they so choose. Admittedly it's a long shot, since no American team has ever won (and Elizabeth Banks laughing hysterically about how the rest of the world hates us was pretty awesome), but it's something. If the Bellas win the world championships, they can be reinstated. If they lose, then they will cease to exist.

So the stakes are pretty high. Or at least as high as they're apt to be in a movie like this. All of our favorites are back - Beca (Anna Kendrick), Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean), Stacie (Alexis Knapp), Lilly (Hanna Mae Lee), Fat Amy, and the other girls are all seniors, while Chloe has deliberately failed all her classes for three years so she can't graduate. This is do or die for the Bellas. 

Except for Beca, who has her other stuff going on. See, Beca has wanted to be a music producer probably since she could say the words, and now she has an internship at a real record studio, working with a record producer (played hilariously and with surprising heart by Keegan-Michael Key). She's an intern and mostly she just fetches coffee, but it's a foot in the door, and when she manages to impress her boss and help Snoop Dogg's newest record, Beca gets a very real shot at making her dreams a reality.

Only, and here's where the big conflict of the film comes in: she's afraid to tell anyone about it. Jesse (Skylar Astin), her boyfriend since the first movie, knows. Chloe doesn't. Beca's afraid to tell her because admitting to conflicting loyalties to a full-on panic mode Chloe is like dropping a cow in front of a shark. 

Complicating matters as well is the presence of Emily Junk (Hailee Steinfeld), their only new Bella recruit. The Bellas were formally banned from admitting new members, but since Emily's mom (the spectacular Katey Sagal) was a Bella, she's a Legacy and the rules don't apply. Interestingly, it's Emily's eyes we see most of the story from, with her struggles to fit into the group, her frustrating that it's not everything she dreamed it would be, and her slow realization that as much as she admires these girls, they're still just normal people with problems.

And oh man do they have problems. Just like in the first film, the majority of the second act documents how horrible the Bellas are right now. They've totally lost their sound and swagger. To make matters worse, they're terrified of their biggest rivals for the world championship, a German "music collective" called Das Sound Machine. Das Sound Machine (or DSM as they sometimes call themselves) is a group of intense, hyper-competitive Germans who want nothing more than to crush the Bellas. Because they can, I guess?

Honestly, as enjoyable as this film is, the plot is nothing to write home about. Beca struggles with balancing work and Bellas, finding herself terrified that in the real world she has no actual talent for her chosen profession. Chloe stresses out about the competition but also about the idea of finally having to graduate college and move on with her life. Emily worries that the group doesn't care about her and it's not everything she wanted it to be. Fat Amy has a whole love story plot going on. 

There are scenes of disastrous performances, an a capella competition in a basement (again), and even a scene where the girls start blurting out their feelings to each other while sitting in a big circle. So, yeah, it's basically a retread of the exact same plot and storyline as before, but that's okay. In a weird way it's comforting.

And, of course, everything turns out fine in the end. Because why wouldn't it? This is a feel-good college movie, so obviously our underdog heroes will win the day eventually. Not every movie will pull a Bring It On.*

What actually ended up surprising me in this film isn't the plot, but rather the emphasis on some of the themes. I mean, some of them were obvious and the same as the first film, but the big one that stood out to me is how the movie ends up really being about how women need to love and support each other, to be the network and backup and general family for each other because without that, life isn't really worth living.

It's not a revolutionary idea by any means, but the movie goes pretty strongly on that idea. When the Bellas don't listen to each other and work together, they stink. But when they pay attention to each others lives, when they support each other, they can make good music. It's not rocket science, but that doesn't mean it's not worthwhile either.

I like this movie. My roommate is always making fun of me because I adore heartwarming sports movies, and this is basically a heartwarming sports movie, let's be real. It's about underdogs working together and finding their groove and then winning a well deserved championship title. Yes, there's some cheese in there. And some stupid fat jokes. And a few moments of eyebrow raising. Yes, the plot is a little stale.

But it's a movie that makes you feel good inside without making you feel bad about anything either. And it's a film that chooses to focus on the bonds of sisterhood, across generations and class and race lines, the idea that you can choose to support the women in your life and that will make your life better. The big breakthrough in the film comes when Beca has a moment of humility and admits how scared she is, only to find that everyone else is scared too. That's important, and it's worth celebrating.

So. Final thoughts. The new Bella introduced aside from Emily, Flo (Chrissie Fit), is a fantastic addition to the team, with her commentary on her harrowing experiences growing up in Guatemala providing a really nice counter-point whenever one of the girls gets too "ah this is the worst thing to ever happen to anyone ever!" about it all. And Birgitte Hjort Sørensen** and Flula Borg are phenomenal as the leaders of Das Sound Machine.

Aubrey (Anna Camp) even gets her own hilarious cameo in the film where we find out what she did after graduation - hint, it involved parlaying her love of yelling at people with her appreciation for guns into a very lucrative career. Heck, even Benji (Ben Platt) gets some development here when he falls hard for Emily and proceeds to make himself into an even more awkward person around her. Somehow.

The real takeaway here, though, should be that it's a fun, enjoyable movie. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, and it doesn't really try. But that's okay. Entertainment is a perfectly acceptable goal for a film and I never got the impression that the people involved in this were half-assing it. No, it's a good film that isn't great about women supporting each other, and isn't that kind of nice?

Yeah. I think so too.

*I love that movie. Just saying. I adore it.
**If she looks vaguely familiar to you, it's probably because she played Tarsi, the super rad Wildling lady in the Game of Thrones episode "Hardhome". You know, the one where that super cool lady became a zombie because we can't have nice things. Her.