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How "Pitch Perfect 2" Stacks Up Against The First Movie

TL;DR: The music is better and the comedy is worse.

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Pitch Perfect was Bring It On meets Glee — the kind of movie that felt like a comfy childhood favorite even when it was brand new in theaters, the kind that you'd stop and watch whenever you stumbled across it on cable. It was a surprise hit only in the context of the industry's Memento-like inability to remember that young women like to watch movies too, and not just as presumedly reluctant companions of the young men at whom most blockbusters are flagrantly aimed.

The 2012 movie, directed by Jason Moore, was warmhearted and rickety, filled with enjoyable musical numbers and jokes that weren't always targeted very carefully. For the second installment, which opens in theaters on May 15, producer and cast member Elizabeth Banks (she plays Gail Abernathy-McKadden, one half of a brutal commentating pair) is making her directorial debut.

Most of the Barden Bellas are now in their senior year, but their story otherwise recycles most of the same beats — so how does the sequel measure up against the first Pitch Perfect? Here's a look.

Beca

Universal Pictures

Throughout Pitch Perfect 2, Anna Kendrick maintains the vaguely disgruntled air of someone who'd rather be elsewhere, which is fine, because the movie's provided her character, Beca, with another storyline about how she'd rather be elsewhere too.

In the sequel, Beca's mind is on her internship at a record production house where she does coffee runs and tries to curry favor with a demanding boss (played by Keegan-Michael Key, who's everywhere this summer). The distraction puts her at odds with Chloe (Brittany Snow), but also means she spends a lot of the movie doing her own thing rather than spending time with the group.

It feels undeniably strange that the main character of both movies has spent so much time distancing herself from the thing the movies are about, and Beca's storyline is clumsily dovetailed with that of the underwritten newcomer Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), who's only ever wanted to be a Bella. The repetition of "I've got more important things to do" isn't just stale, it feels like a mistake in a movie that's all about the Bellas' last hurrah before graduation. Shouldn't Beca be more into this by now?

Winner: Pitch Perfect

The music

Universal Pictures

The mash-ups are back, choreographer Aakomon Jones is back, and in a new development, the Bellas actually flirt with the aca-transgressive idea of performing an original tune — "Flashlight," which in the movie is composed by new Bella Emily, and performed on the soundtrack by Jessie J. It doesn't have the same wistful charm of Kendrick's "Cups," but it doesn't need to. It's a big, arms outstretched, Katy Perry–esque number that's threaded through the movie in various forms, one that really soars in its final and fullest appearance. Like Pitch Perfect itself, it manages to feel familiar even though it isn't.

"Cups" does get a reprise, as does the "riff-off," one of the highlights of the first movie, which is actually bigger and better in the sequel, taking place at an underground party hosted by the self-declared "world's biggest a cappella fan" (played by David Cross) and filled out with some welcome cameos.

The Bellas' big rivals in Pitch Perfect 2, the German group Das Sound Machine, get a few amusingly precise musical numbers of their own. Led by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen and Flula Borg and dressed like the villains in a dystopian YA story, "DSM" manages a bit of choreography that's simultaneously clever and silly. Despite plot requirements, the Bellas aren't always the obvious singing standouts they're meant to be, but their mash-ups are even more impeccably put together this go-round.

Winner: Pitch Perfect 2

Fat Amy

Richard Cartwright / Universal Pictures

Rebel Wilson's outsize oddball Fat Amy was Pitch Perfect's breakout character, walking away with a movie that veered into laughing at her as much as it laughed with her, sometimes suggesting her unshakable confidence was unearned. Fat Amy is just as funny and IDGAF in the sequel, but the movie continues to undercut her as much as celebrate her.

The opening sequence — in which Fat Amy accidentally ends up flashing an audience that includes the president, first lady, and Shonda Rhimes — is built around her nudity being repellent rather than in any way sexual. It's impossible to imagine a similar gag in which Beca or Chloe unintentionally shows a theater full of people her vagina. Then again, Fat Amy isn't destroyed by the incident the way a more shakable human inevitably would be — she's possessed of a bulletproof sense of self.

Pitch Perfect 2 gives Fat Amy a romance that's actually pretty sweet, playing off gender role expectations and culminating in a swooning romantic gesture that's as poignant as it is funny. But then it concludes with a kiss that's more like two dogs licking each other's faces, because god forbid the overweight girl get some in a way that's not ultimately treated as grotesque.

Winner: Tie

The comedy

Richard Cartwright / Universal Pictures

Pitch Perfect's relationship with race and sexuality had discordant notes throughout the first movie — consider Lilly Okanakamura (Hana Mae Lee), who may have had some delightfully weird lines that no one but the audience could hear, but whose character was entirely based around a silent Asian girl stereotype that seemed particularly egregious in a movie about making noise. Beca's hostile Korean American roommate was also awkwardly handled, and the treatment of Cynthia-Rose's (Ester Dean) lesbianism felt like the painful setup to a bit without the much-needed resolution.

Pitch Perfect 2 is even worse when it comes to would-be provocative humor and jokes that don't land. In addition to Lilly, who's unchanged, the movie doubles down on the race-based tone deafness with the addition of Flo (Chrissie Fit), who only speaks when she's trying to relate to her downtrodden fellow Bellas by talking about how terrible life was in her home country of Guatemala — "I had diarrhea for seven years," she explains earnestly. It's hard to come up with a reading of the repeated jokes about kidnapping and border crossing that's not, "Developing nations are hilarious hellscapes!"

Still, her scenes aren't as wince-worthy as the ones in which Banks and John Michael Higgins reprise their roles as a cappella competition commentators. The pair's off-color cracks escalate into bits of bigotry without a punchline in sight other than offensiveness. When the joke is that one of them thinks it's funny to say a Latina character will "backflip right over the fence into Mexico," it's time for a rewrite — maybe for the inevitable Pitch Perfect 3.

Winner, here and overall: Pitch Perfect

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