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Staying In Tune Isn't So Easy In 'Pitch Perfect 2'

Chloe (Brittany Snow), Flo (Chrissie Fit), Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), Beca (Anna Kendrick), Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) and Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) are the Barden Bellas in Pitch Perfect 2. Richard Cartwright/Universal Studios hide caption

toggle caption Richard Cartwright/Universal Studios

Chloe (Brittany Snow), Flo (Chrissie Fit), Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), Beca (Anna Kendrick), Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) and Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) are the Barden Bellas in Pitch Perfect 2.

Richard Cartwright/Universal Studios

Something's different about these Bellas. Three years ago, the Anna Kendrick-led all-female a cappella group won the hearts of music nerds everywhere in the college comedy Pitch Perfect. Now they're flashing the president at the Kennedy Center.

That's what happens at the end of the opening number to Pitch Perfect 2, when, in the middle of a group mashup of pop songs from the past few years, Bella breakout Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson, the franchise's proudly plus-size scene-stealer) descends from the rafters singing Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" as her costume bursts open. The Obamas, or stock footage of the Obamas, anyway, look on in horror. Then there's a follow-up montage of famous newscasters tsk-tsking Fat Amy.

By this point, fans of the surprise hit first film may be wondering if they're witnessing the Aca-pocalypse. What happened to the perceptive, relatively low-key college comedy that cared about nail detail and reveled in the simple thrill of vocal remixes? The effortless charms of Kendrick, Wilson and top-notch bit players like Brittany Snow and Adam DeVine now play second fiddle to so much shock humor and extended celebrity cameos that a Saturday Night Live parody would feel redundant.

Elizabeth Banks, who has produced both films in the series and offers running commentary with John Michael Higgins as one-half of the collegiate a cappella society's obsessive playcallers, directed this sequel. Despite so much returning talent (the film also shares the same screenwriter in Kay Cannon), Pitch Perfect 2 is singing a completely different tune from the 2012 original. And the notes are feeling a bit overproduced.

If the film's opener is rough, it soon picks up again. Though the Bellas have been stripped of their U.S. championship status, replaced at gigs by an electropop-loving German group clad in all black, a loophole in the amusingly byzantine a cappella bylaws grants them the right to compete for a global trophy at an international vocal competition. While her group is training, Beca, the aspiring DJ portrayed so winningly by Kendrick, goes to intern for a conceited record producer (the hilarious Keegan Michael Key) who swears at his hipster underlings. Beca can't bring herself to tell the other Bellas she's thinking about something besides them, just as Fat Amy can't bear to admit her feelings for lovestruck Bumper (DeVine), who once headed the rival all-male singing group but now works campus security as a post-grad.

And a Bella newcomer, the legacy member Emily (a crushingly enthusiastic Hailee Steinfeld), is desperate to live up to the group's lofty ideals. When Emily, who will surely take over the franchise should there be a Pitch Perfect 3, begins to have doubts about her place in the group, Fat Amy reassures her, "You are one of us. You paid the registration fee."

There are still fun vocal numbers, though since the first Pitch Perfect was such an unexpected hit — cool young women slinging tunes can carry a movie without male leads, who knew? — this one has the puppetry of studio heads trying to apply corporate synergy to a formula they've only just discovered. Fans of the first movie remember the "riff-off" song battle held in secret in a dark corner of campus. So here it is again, except more expensive and including an extended role for the Green Bay Packers. (The battle, orchestrated by an eccentric, wealthy a cappella fan played by David Cross and filled with famous faces, now resembles the fantastical, cameo-stuffed fights from the Anchorman movies.)

Meanwhile, Latinos are a growing market, so here's Flo (Chrissie Fit), a Guatemalan Bella whose only lines are jokes about her legal status. In addition to being an unfunny one-note stereotype, Flo also drives home one of the franchise's weakest continuing points: the lack of a true interpersonal relationship between the Bellas, though their sisterhood is supposed to be the emotional center of the series. As in the first film, there are running jokes about how no one understands the low talker (Hana Mae Lee), and about the interchangeability of the lesser members. The group feels like one of those hierarchy-obsessed cliques Mean Girls warned us about.

Well hey, as long as there's all this singing going on, why not try to sell an original song? A new generic pop ditty called "Flashlight" appears several times, supposedly written by Emily but actually penned by Sia, Sam Smith, Jason Moore, and Christian Guzman (and performed by Jessie J on the soundtrack). There's a running joke about how a cappella is no place for originals — but isn't that kind of true? One of the genre's chief appeals is how it uses rearranged harmonies and raw group effort to give new life to old favorites. It's a skill that, in the wake of Pitch Perfect 2's muddled attempt to recapture a familiar beat, looks that much harder to pull off.

"Flashlight" May 15, 2015

This review originally misstated that Jessie J wrote the song "Flashlight." She performs it on the soundtrack, but it was written by Sia, Sam Smith, Jason Moore, and Christian Guzman.

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