Being "disappointed" in Pitch Perfect 2 would require having meaningfully elevated expectations for it, and hopefully not too many people would make that mistake. Cinema history is littered with comedy sequels that fail in exactly the way this one does: re-create the same plot beats and thematic arc, only do everything bigger, more expensive, and less funny. There are few enough exceptions that the course of wisdom is to just assume that you're heading for a piece of absolute crap, or a mildly amusing but horrifically lazy retread at best, and when you are graced by the sudden arrival of an Addams Family Values or A Shot in the Dark, clutch it to your breast like an innocent child. What I am disappointed in, then, is not the movie itself.

But I am definitely willing to concede that I'm very disappointed in Elizabeth Banks's directorial debut, which Pitch Perfect 2 happens to be: after years of counting on Banks to be a reliable stabilising presence in wonderful comedies, mediocre comedies, and downright shitty comedies, I was more than a little eager to see her apply the knowledge she picked up over the years into working on the backside of the camera. And that didn't happen; there are lots of reasons that Pitch Perfect 2 isn't very great, but the directing is absolutely one of them, with the tone going far more sour far more often than in the first Pitch Perfect and the visuals flatlining in exactly the place you'd want them to thrive, the musical numbers. Which are inventively staged by choreographer Aakomon "A.J." Jones, but shot hectically and cut to ribbons by Banks and editor Craig Alpert, and that's just no fun at all.

In her defense, Banks didn't have all that much to work with. The script, written like the original by Kay Cannon, is a pristine example of sequelitis, going to extreme (and frankly, unnecessary) lengths to set the characters back to the start in a lot of ways, while raising the stakes enormously but unconvincingly, and ramping up everything that worked last time from modest and thus charming all the way to screaming and tedious. Three years after winning the national college a capella championships, the Barden Bellas are America's premiere a capella group, having completed a three-peat of their victory, and thus must be punished back down to freakish misfits. This is accomplished in the first of the film's weirdly regressive jokes, for a movie that is so fucking anxious to show off its liberal message bona fides: at a concert for no less than President Stockfootage Obama, the self-named Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), sardonic Australian and beloved breakout character from the last movie, suffers a wardrobe mishap that leaves her genitalia on lingering display for all of America to gawk at with intense furor and ragehorror, because the vaginas of fat people are the holes to Lovecraftian hell dimensions.

The Bellas are kicked out of the a capella ssociation with only one chance to redeem themselves: if - if! - they can become the first American team to win the world championship of a capella. And they throw themselves into the task of doing so, though de facto leader Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick) is far more interested in her new internship under a great music producer (Keegan-Michael Key) than making new and radically challenging arrangements for the group to prove itself. It's no more and no less predictable in its assemble of stock items than Pitch Perfect was, and the difference comes down entirely to performance and tone. Pitch Perfect ignored its wanton overfamiliarity in favor of focusing on the warm, specific characters played by Kendrick, Wilson, and others like Brittany Snow (who comes back as a graduation-averse four-time senior), Anna Camp (who cameos), and Ester Dean (who returns in a role that isn't as mired in lazy stereotypes as before, though it feels like she's also in the movie less). Pitch Perfect 2 lets its characters be far too snappish, and the basic pleasure of watching characters be friends with each other is forced and inauthentic in most of its occurrences. There are just enough flashes of the congenial spirit of the first movie for the sequel to be, generally, speaking, satisfactory; for example, a long scene around a campfire where the movie digs in with a "wow, we're all going to graduate soon and this will all end" vibe that the movie keeps glancing at without committing to.

But these likable grace notes are only intermittent in a film that loses the originals two best weapons, with much-degraded performances from a palpably checked-out Kendrick and Wilson shading perpetually into mean brutality instead of fleet-footed sarcasm. And then there's the usual "do it again but bigger and stupider" problem, which finds the last movie's riff-off turned into a huge underground a capella death match overseen by a rich eccentric played by David Cross as a collection of mincing effeminate stereotypes that were stale by the end of the 1980s (this scene does have, by far, the film's best joke in the form of the most unexpected celebrity cameos in an age), and the dirty-minded humor cranked into outright foulness that's so wearying as to lose any ability to trigger even a slight giggle. The morally reprehensible color commentators played by John Michael Higgins and Banks herself (she proves, like many actors before her, incapable of directing herself; she keeps stumbling into a reprise of her Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games and its sequels) are even more of a film-stopping liability than before, jamming the brakes to grimly push through riffs with rather too much cruelty to be even ironically funny.

Even when the film plumbs new territory, it's of limited value. The movie's new villains, an archly Germanic a capella group led by the statuesque Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) and Pieter Krämer (Flula Borg), are amusingly severe at first (all of Kendrick's best work comes in her scenes with them), though it eventually becomes clear that the movie's sole idea for them is "boy, Germans are assholes!", the first volley in what will eventually become a whole litany of national parodies in the last act that makes Epcot Center look like a painfully realist docudrama (one previously unseen Bella, played by Chrissie Fit, is nothing but a delivery system for obnoxious and tired "boy, what about illegal immigrants? And those Central American death squads!" jokes). The new hero, Emily Junk, is a generic striver played by Hailee Steinfeld without any color or charm, and the film's open insistence in its writing and framing that she's set to be the franchise anchor going forward is nothing but a threat. Particularly if her character continues to write such joylessly anonymous pop songs as the one that turns into a major film-long plot point, and we're meant to find enthralling in some way or another.

It would be overstating to call Pitch Perfect 2 "bad". Mostly, it is profoundly lazy, slackly plotted - after three years of national prominence at a school where a capella culture is a Big Fucking Deal, there's only one Bella who isn't a senior, and the script calls repeated attention to this fact - and tonally off; not contrary to being funny so much as it doesn't have the flair and timing to be more than thinly amusing. There's never more than ten minutes that go by without a scene that works well on a character level, and Key proves to be an infectious scene-stealer, wandering in from a spikier, much smarter movie and bringing all its stinging wit and laser-focused pacing with him. The filmmakers didn't not care. But they didn't care enough, and their movie is the most boring kind of retread, one with all the jokes muted and the performances robbed of vitality and the characters put through glaringly simplistic paces.

Reviews in this series
Pitch Perfect (Moore, 2012)
Pitch Perfect 2 (Banks, 2015)
Pitch Perfect 3 (Sie, 2017)