Some people complain about sequels to beloved movies, while others welcome the possibility that a part deux might be even better than the first. Sometimes that happens: While The Godfather is great, The Godfather: Part II expands on its dramatic intensity without repeating any of the same tricks, and The Empire Strikes Back is a much more operatic and emotionally complex picture than Star Wars. Jason Moore's Pitch Perfect, which riffed on the highs and lows of a college all-female a cappella group, was a surprise hit upon its release in 2012. It was a cheerful, straightforward picture, about Being Who You Are, Finding New Love and Singing Out Loud. And really, who doesn't love singing? Especially a cappella singing, in which human voices, in their gloriously naked state, blend into swirls of color that hardly need instrumental accompaniment (even if, in this case, those voices have been aggressively Auto-Tuned).
Ideally, Pitch Perfect 2 — which also happens to be Elizabeth Banks' feature directorial debut — would offer more of those simple, guileless good things. And it sort of does — but that's just the problem. Pitch Perfect 2 tries to fork over many of the pleasures of the first movie without changing them around all that much. There's a do-or-die competition (this time, the team to beat is a bunch of humorless Germans who call themselves Das Sound Machine), several romances that stumble before getting off the ground, and the usual ceremonial humiliation of the overweight girl. Rebel Wilson again plays Fat Amy, who embraces her size with gusto, and you might say she makes her entrance in Pitch Perfect 2 ass-backward. Amy accepts her fate cheerfully, even though the embarrassment she suffers is really just sort of blandly unfunny: Her way-too-tight costume rips during an important performance, and the fact that she isn't wearing any underwear gets the group banned from further competition.
Pitch Perfect 2 isn't awful. Despite all its striving to give us more, it just doesn't have the energy that a sequel needs in order to leap the bar of high expectations. Anna Kendrick, possibly the world's most adorable human chipmunk, returns as Beca, who is now rounding the end of her senior year at (fictional) Barden College. The sorority-slash–singing group to which she belongs, the Bellas, have inducted a new member: Emily (the charmingly low-key Hailee Steinfeld), who seems to fit in right away — her voice is light, lilting and sweet. In fact, her only flaw is that she happens to have a gift for writing her own material, while the Bellas favor cover songs. So what's the problem, exactly?
Meanwhile, Beca has become somewhat distracted by the internship she has kept secret from the other Bellas: She's working at a recording studio run by an exacting tyrant, played, wonderfully, by Keegan-Michael Key — every scene he's in has a crackerjack nuttiness.
The story is stuffed with subplots and gags that are sometimes fun by themselves but don't quite cohere into a whole — the picture has a melismatic waywardness, as if it's singing as fast as it can yet is never quite sure where it's going. (The script, again, is by Kay Cannon, based on characters by Mickey Rapkin.) There's a major sing-off hosted by a rich, eccentric a cappella fan (David Cross in a silky bathrobe), which is the movie's most exhilarating sequence — Banks keeps it cooking, suggesting that, with better material, she could take the loopy spirit she brings to her film performances and translate it into behind-the-camera vision. She also appears in the film, reprising her role as prissy competition commentator Gail; mostly, she provides deadpan reactions to colleague John Michael Higgins' off-the-map, intentionally sexist wisecracks, which are so exaggerated that they're wholly inoffensive. Even so, they may have been funnier on paper.
Every once in a while, though, a joke lands: Wilson's Fat Amy calls the Bellas' smirking German competition “Deutschbags”; Hana Mae Lee is back in her small but mighty role as Bella member Lilly Okanakamura, making outlandish, Dada pronouncements (“All of my teeth are from other people”) in her tiny, breathy voice; Wilson has a great sight gag in which her heartfelt, en plein air rendering of an over-the-top love ballad — sung to her honeybunch Bumper, played by Adam DeVine — is interrupted by an SUV that pauses at a road crossing like a puzzled cow, unsure if it's safe to proceed.
There's enough to laugh at in Pitch Perfect 2, and the singing is fun, but the movie doesn't match or exceed the polyphonic jubilance of its predecessor. It's stuck on middle C.
PITCH PERFECT 2 | Directed by Elizabeth Banks | Written by Kay Cannon | Universal Pictures | Citywide