Review – Pitch Perfect 3

Believe it or not, I had never seen the first two Pitch Perfect films until last Sunday, when I did my appropriate homework in preparation for the release of this third entry in the series.  I enjoyed them, finding the combination of irreverent humor and energetic musical performances to be quite infectious and endearing.  The ongoing theme of the benefits of teamwork without the elimination of individuality are also worthwhile and not something often addressed by film, allowing the property to stand out a bit in the marketplace.  Throw in the likable cast and we have a winning franchise that has made a surprising amount of money (the first one grossed $115 million worldwide on a $17 million budget while its sequel earned a staggering $287 million-plus on a $29 million budget) and garnered a lot of adoration.

This film will not achieve the same level of financial success as its predecessor.  There is just far too much competition, right now.  As long as it makes approximately $120 million worldwide or so, it will be fine.  That will probably happen, but director Trish Sie and her accompanying screenwriters don’t do much to make reaching that goal a no-brainer.  As much as the first two films were focused, streamlined, and possessed a clear vision of what they hoped to accomplish, Pitch Perfect 3 at least partially – if not mostly – loses its own identity in trying to be something it’s not (and something its fans don’t want it to be) while sacrificing its own cast of characters to force that agenda on us all.

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I’m not going to pretend that there isn’t at least a fairly healthy dose of what audiences are expecting in this film.  The girls still get to sing and dance and they (mostly) do it well, with Anna Kendrick and Hailee Steinfeld easily being the best of the bunch.  And the humor is there as well – particularly from Rebel Wilson – though I would say it only has about a 50% hit rate.  Still, that’s better than a lot of other so-called comedies (if that’s the benchmark we’re using, now).  But all of that is in there.  One of the problems with the film, however, is that it’s not delivered in the way or with the frequency that audiences have come to expect.

In the first two films, there was a sense of joy and excitement around the Barden Bellas.  Their talent was obvious.  Their enthusiasm was evident.  All they needed was the chance to learn how to put it all together in a well-rounded presentation and to learn their audience.  While presented as susceptible to their own flaws, they were never assumed to be incompetent or incapable.

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As in Pitch Perfect 2, this film features one significant misstep by the Bellas that puts them at a moral disadvantage against their . . . competitors, I guess (we’ll get to that, in a minute)?  However, this “misstep” is something that is done to them, not something for which they are themselves responsible.  And then everyone treats them – after their natural reaction of confusion and surprise – as if they should be embarrassed and considered amateur.

Throw in that the “competition” is barely that at all, with no true winners or losers, and it seems like very little is at stake, here.  Each group wants to open for DJ Khaled (who has two scenes with any significant dialogue and he is absolutely horrible.  How can someone be awful at playing themselves?) and that’s it.  On top of that, the talent level of the other groups range from somewhat competent to pretty good, but the Bellas are clearly better than all of them.  It’s no longer an a cappella competition, so the others are using instruments to support themselves.  In doing so, they are predictably safe and sound like virtually every other band out there who knows how to play a guitar but not how to perform without using the instruments as a crutch.

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All the while, the Bellas are putting the vocals of their competitors to shame and “outplaying” the others’ instruments with their backup vocals alone.  Their a cappella style of performing has a far higher degree of difficulty and, in addition, they perform at a stronger level than the other groups.  So, why does the film then try to convince the audience that the Bellas are the inferior group of the entire bunch?  Not only is the competition itself forced and contrived, but any sense of competition within it is, as well.

And then there’s John Lithgow’s Fergus.  Fergus is Fat Amy’s (Wilson) estranged father, hoping to reconnect with his daughter as she and the Bellas are focusing on making their last performance together a great one.  The subplot starts out as a mild distraction but balloons into an unwelcome intrusion that practically changes the entire genre of the film, itself.  Not one Pitch Perfect fan asked for this specific kind of element to be worked into the mix of any of these films  – especially when it’s presumably the last one – and all it does is throw the entire film off track and take time away from what the audience wants to see: lighthearted and energetic singing competitions.  Even worse is that this is the worst performance I’ve ever seen from John Lithgow.  It’s not “bad for John Lithgow”.  It’s just bad.  I’m tempted to blame Sie’s direction but no one else turns in a poor performance, so I’m unfortunately not sure I can do that.

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Meanwhile, Beca (Kendrick) is saddled with an arc that is a duplicate of her Pitch Perfect 2 story, Emily (Steinfeld) is robbed of all of the progress she made in that same film, and all of the other girls are restricted to background roles and underdeveloped subplots.  At least Lilly is still delightfully odd.  But there is no big emotional payoff to anything in the film.  There’s no payoff to the main story or to any of the subplots.  The musical performances are strong but lack the enthusiasm of the film’s predecessors.  And, as game as the cast is, they can only do so much to elevate the mindboggling material.  And, to an extent, they do – especially Kendrick, Steinfeld, and Wilson.  (And Adam Devine’s Bumper is nowhere to be seen, which is a significant plus, in my eyes, as I despised both the character and Devine’s performances.)  But there’s still so much going on around them that even that talented trio simply can’t save.

Both fans and the cast of the Pitch Perfect series deserve better than this presumed conclusion.  Now, truth be told, I don’t think the film’s target audience is quite as discerning as hardcore film lovers, nor quite as prone to pure, unadulterated, overstated hate as, say, Star Wars “fans”.  So, this type of movie tends to be critic-proof to a large degree.  It’s very likely that many fans of the previous films will love this one just as much.  If that’s the case, please don’t let me stop you or change your mind.  But if you’re more of a film fan and less of a Pitch Perfect fan specifically, you might want to temper your expectations, a bit.

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