Wednesday, May 27, 2015

PITCH PERFECT 2's vestigial tails send this picture out of tune

I saw PITCH PERFECT 2 this past weekend, and let me say that as a fan of the first one, the sequel made me grateful we never got a true sequel to BRING IT ON.

I'll unpack that a little bit more. This script is a perfect example of why comedy sequels are really hard to get right, and specifically why these sort of team ensemble scripts are especially hard to nail.

Everyone loved the characters in the first film and it helps that they had such a deep bench of types to draw from: the grounded Beca, the uptight Aubrey, the blunt Fat Amy, the slutty girl who's name I can't remember, the guy with the very punchable face... you get the picture. Despite having a large ensemble of women and a decent-sized number of dudes, the film didn't feel crowded because everyone had a reason for being there. That's the beauty of not writing for a franchise. If a piece doesn't fit, it gets written out and no one ever has to know it was there.

There are really two macro conflicts in the first one: Beca vs. the Bellas and then The Bellas vs The Treblemakers. The conflicts are pretty well-defined early on. Beca's issues with the Bellas stems from the leadership being too staid and tied to tradition, which results in a setlist that doesn't list any songs written in this century. So every scene with just the Bellas is often driven by this tension. It also gives purpose to the disparate personalities of the women, because it makes it harder for them to get out of their own way. That doesn't get resolved until current leaders Aubrey and Chloe relent and have Beca take the reigns in practice. The result is a wonderful scene where Beca directs the girls in a mash-up performance, bringing them together in harmony. (Writer Kay Kay Cannon is clever, isn't she?)

With that resolve, the remaining conflict is "The Big Competition," the national a cappella competition where the Bellas face the Treblemakers for the top spot. The Treblemakers, being from the same college, have crossed paths with the women repeatedly, and each time have proven to be formidable. Every taunt, every snide remark between the two groups has purpose. Bumper's douchiness Their lead-off performance is just as strong as their previous work, which means that for the Bellas's victory to be credible, they have to raise their game too. And they do. (Though Bumper is weirdly written out of the finals, every other scene where he's an unlikable ass has actual purpose.

The problem with PITCH PERFECT 2 flows from the fact that even though those conflicts are resolved, characters who have no story left to play out are still invited back for the encore, which clutters up a film that now needs to accommodate those on top of the actual conflicts driving the new story. PP2 is a perfect cast study in why most comedy sequels tend to jettison the love interests from the first film. Once the couple has gotten together, it's a lot harder to use their relationship to drive the story unless you're willing to introduce a new major conflict. In the first film, Beca's love interest Jesse is on the rival team, which allows that subplot to have ramifications for Beca's dynamic with the group.

The Treblemakers have no reason to appear in PITCH PERFECT 2 at all. There are moments where it's not implausible for them to be involved, such as when they are groups invited to some kind of underground a capella competition, but the fact is you can slice Jesse, Benji and Bumper out of every scene in which they appear and nothing of consequence is impacted. Jesse shows up to add a couple songs to the soundtrack and kiss Beca goodbye on her first day of work and that's about it. It's like he's just there to assure us that he and Beca are still a couple. Benji is given about three half-scenes that all revolve around him falling at first sight for new Bella member Emily. It's not a relationship that informs anything about Emily, nor does it demand any growth of her, the way Beca's did in the first film. It really feels like this was the quick solution to "We want to add Benji to the film, but we only have him for a few days starting TOMORROW!"

You get the same feeling about Bumper's scenes. He's basically there so that Rebel Wilson's Fat Amy has her own subplot about realizing her feelings for him are more than just as a hook-up buddy. Not only is this an uninteresting use of Bumper, but it's a pretty awful use of Fat Amy. It never really circles back to make any impact on the A-story, which again leaves this feeling like a collection of should-have-been-deleted scenes. It's really perplexing and disappointing that this was the best they could do for arguably the biggest breakout character from the first film. It's even more inexplicable when you realize that her abrasive personality would make it very easy to craft some kind of Amy vs. Bellas or Amy vs. Beca conflict.

With so much time allotted to these vestigial tails from the first film, the rest of the Bellas feel like rare-speaking extras. Cynthia-Rose, Stacie, and Lily get MAYBE a dozen lines each. There are two girls who I'm sure never spoke, and Hailee Steinfeld is wasted as Emily. The villains this time around - a German team that's more "Sprockets" than "Fourth Reich" as German stereotypes go - don't get developed much. I'll give them points for landing solid zingers every time they show up, but once you get past that and their well-arranged numbers, there's not much to them. It might have been more interesting if there had eventually been some real dynamic between their leader Komissiar and Beca, much in the way BRING IT ON had its two rival leaders come to some kind of understanding in the end.

It's a crowded film that doesn't have time to let its characters be much more than stereotypes. A rare exception might be Keegan-Michael Key as a producer Beca's interning for. There are moments it feels like Key could have tipped the character just a little bit further into "Ari Gold evil boss" stereotype-land, but he actually creates a character who stands on the precipice of being a tyrant while still being credible as a producer and thoughtful as a leader. This guy could have easily been a cartoon, but by the time his brief story is over, you really believe he knows what he's talking about and you understand why this guy is successful. There's a reality to him that too many of the other characters lack.

The music is fun, boasting some clever arrangements. I'm sure the soundtrack will find its way onto my iPhone. Regrettably, the movie that spawned it won't have the same replay-ability.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Bitter Script Reader,

    I was wondering who are the best script consultants in Los Angeles you'd trust? (Setting aside the argument that it's bad to pay for notes. I'm willing to do it because I just can't turn in a script without knowing where it stands). Thanks.