The big Hollywood story of this week is the power of feminism. The top two spots of this weekend’s box office results belonged to movies with strong female protagonists, a delightful surprise that shouldn’t be the exception, but the rule (aren’t you tired of movies about white men? I am a white man and I am exhausted). But as in common in this life, major triumphs are often bittersweet. Who would’ve thought that Mad Max Fury Road -the fourth installment in an action franchise directed by a 70-year-old white male- would be a better and more nuanced feminist statement than Pitch Perfect 2, which is not only a movie about women, but was written by 30 Rock alum Kay Cannon and directed by Elizabeth Banks (who was an executive producer for the first film).
I don’t blame people for being excited about Pitch Perfect 2. It is the rare movie that presents not one, but a group of women succeeding at an incredibly nerdy thing (college a cappella). The collective experience element of the film is rare and valuable, but the movie’s concern for showing women’s success as being a collaborative effort means relatively little when its heroic collective’s success seems to be fueled by… hatred? Pitch Perfect 2 is not a very good movie. The first reason is that it’s not really that funny. It is yet another movie whose comedy is based largely on letting its actors improvise funny lines, and the results is an awkward parade of hacky jokes. But that is only the surface. The biggest problem in this movie is that it is racist as hell.
Before we get into the really bad stuff about the movie, I want to point out that not everything here is terrible. The movie does have Rebel Wilson as one of its protagonist. Wilson has proven to be an invaluable supporting presence in many movies, including the original Pitch Perfect, which featured her breakout character of Fat Amy. This time around, Wilson proves to be one of the most gifted improvisers in the cast, and she is front and center in the movie’s stand-out sequence: an over the top romantic rendition of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” that makes the best argument for Wilson’s talent as a performer.
That, I’m afraid, is the only truly exciting moment in all of Pitch Perfect 2. There are other funny sequences, but they more often than not go on for way too long and lose sight of their own comedy in the process. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The topic of Fat Amy is actually a good segway into the film’s problems. You see, the movie opens with our heroines, the Barden Bellas, performing at President Obama’s birthday. The performance gets off to a good start, but a technical malfunction rips Fat Amy’s pants, and leaves her flashing her vagina while hanging from the ceiling.
The incident, baptized “muffgate”, becomes a scandal that puts the future of the Bellas at stake. Now, it’s not hard to believe such a moment of public nudity (in front of the Obamas) would make national news. However, there is a difference between how America reacted to Janet Jackson’s nipple, and how the characters in Pitch Perfect 2 react to Fat Amy. It’s not just a matter of indecent exposure, there is an undercurrent of fat shaming in how disgusted everyone is by Amy’s body. This is fairly early in the movie, so I thought the movie might be setting itself to comment on societal sexism. Turns out I was setting myself up for disappointment.
That is the biggest problem of Pitch Perfect 2‘s humor. The movie wants to have its cake and eat it too, only it doesn’t provide a compelling reason for us to go along with its crass sense of humor. The best example of this is the announcer/podcaster characters played by John Michael Higgins and Banks herself. They provide commentary during the musical performances, which really means they make a bunch of sexist and racist jokes. The movie seems to asking us to laugh at this backwards duo, not my favorite comedic device, but one that can work in the right circumstances. Those circumstances, however, are not to be found in Pitch Perfect 2, which shows the same kind of bone-headed attitude as these characters.
It starts with the fact that the only Bellas who are “important” to the plot of the movie, i.e. the only ones who have characters arcs are the white ones. Anna Kendrick is the “cool one”, who is preparing for her future by getting an internship at a hip record label. Brittany Snow is the leader of the group, who is so afraid of her future outside of school and away from the Bellas that she is failing her classes on purpose. Hailee Steinfeld is a new addition to the team, a freshman who has dreamt of being a Bella for as long as she has remembered. And then there is Fat Amy, who is intended to empower, but is also white and blonde. All these characters -except Fat Amy- fall into the restrictive patriarchal mold my Gender Studies professor called FHALT (Feminine, Heterosexual, Able-bodied, Light-skinned, Thin).
There are also Bellas who are not white -three, to be exact- but they are not real characters. As supporting Bellas, they are only stereotypes. Lily (Hana Mae Lee) is Asian and very quiet, except when she whispers truly bizarre things. Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean) is a black lesbian, so she’s there to make jokes about how she’d like to bang her teammates. And then, we have Flo (Chrissie Fit), the group’s latina member, and the character most horribly served by the movie.
To witness: there is a scene late in the movie where the Bellas sit around a campfire and share their hopes and fears about their future. It’s an emotional moment that is supposed to pluck the heartstrings and get us pumped up for the grand finale. However, when it comes time for Flo to talk about her future, she says the something along the lines of “after I graduate I’ll probably be deported and will probably die at sea while trying to re-enter the country.” It’s a horrible, horrible line that is not only treated as a joke, but is met with a shrug -a shrug!- from her loving teammates. How do you expect me to root for these girls when none of them gives a shit about Flo dying? How dare you suggest I worry about Anna Kendrick’s stupid internship more than about this young woman’s future?!
It was baffling. It’s one thing to side-line your minoritized characters in favor of yet another bland story about white people, but it’s another to trivialize the plight of a whole social group by shrugging their deaths. I was expecting to have a fun, empowering time watching Pitch Perfect 2, I didn’t expect it to be an outright hateful movie.
Grade: 3 out of 10