PITCH PERFECT 3. Anna Kendrick, Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Hailee Steinfeld, Hana Mae Lee, Ester Dean, Chrissie Fit, Alexis Knapp, John Lithgow, Ruby Rose, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins. Directed by Trish Sie. 93 minutes. Rated M (Sexual references).
The ‘Pitch Perfect’ trilogy could easily be described as ‘The Little Franchise That Could’. When the first film arrived in 2012, some may have expected its moderate box office success and relatively positive reviews. But what shocked film pundits was the extreme cult status that it developed rapidly via home formats, all but launching the career of Australian comedienne Rebel Wilson, inspiring thousands of imitations of its iconic ‘Cup Song’, proving that female comedies don’t need to star Melissa McCarthy to succeed, and making all involved lots of money from auxiliary revenue streams. No one batted an eyelid, then, when a sequel was greenlit, which went on to almost triple the box office receipts of its predecessor, despite forgoing some of its indefinable freshness. This ‘final’ film in the series (it remains to be seen whether studio executives will actually put this golden goose out to pasture) feels like a further decline from the hit that started it all, more like a victory lap than a satisfying conclusion. ‘The Return of the King’ this is not. Nonetheless, it hits most of its expected notes and should give fans of the first two films some satisfaction.
The film starts out by resolutely trying to buck the “Barden Bellas vs. Far More Imposing Acapella Groups” plot that ran through the last two films. Instead, when we catch up with the Bellas, they’re performing a Britney Spears cover on a gangster’s boat, which is promptly engulfed in a billowing fireball. More James Bond than Barden Bellas, it would seem.
Jumping back three weeks, we watch Beca (Anna Kendrick), Fat Amy a.k.a. Patricia (Rebel Wilson) and the rest of the Barden Bellas get together for a reunion. Realising how much they all miss performing together, Aubrey (Anna Camp) uses an Army contact to get the Bellas a slot on a USO tour around Europe. Hosted for members of the Armed Services and their families, these tours aren’t competitions; they’re concerts, in which the Bellas play alongside female rock band Evermoist, country music band Saddle Up, and hip-hop duo Young Sparrow and DJ Dragon Nutz.
A ‘Pitch Perfect’ film that doesn’t focus on an explicit competitive challenge is an intriguing proposition – how quaint must a film focused solely on music appreciation be! However, the screenplay quickly course corrects to the default template of its predecessors when the girls find out that, at the end of the USO tour, American rap guru DJ Khaled (playing himself in a terrific extension of his already larger-than-life persona) will choose one of the groups to support him on his final performance. The girls now have the competition that they all, particularly Aubrey and Chloe (Brittany Snow), desperately crave. Throw in a few romance/friendship issues and the rest of the film all but writes itself.
Now back to the exploding pleasure cruiser, which is eventually revealed to be part of a strange subplot that feels like a failed Fat Amy spinoff that writers Kay Cannon and Mike White have just shoehorned into the threequel to pad out its thin plot. It involves Fat Amy reuniting with her ex-con father, Fergus (John Lithgow, playing the Australian larrikin as an affected Crocodile Dundee), whose reappearance in her life may be too good to be true. While the subplot doesn’t neatly gel with the brand that the previous films developed, it does allow composer Christopher Lennertz a chance to flex his espionage genre muscles, and there is a knowing absurdity to the boat-blow-up-scored-to-Britney sequence that caps off the subplot that should keep a smile on faces.
Setting aside this brief crime caper, the film never really bothers to take the franchise in a new direction. There are still a handful of mass-produced pop songs that manage to get your feet tapping along, which director Trish Sie shoots more like recent concert films than her predecessors (Jason Moore and Elizabeth Banks on ‘Pitch Perfect’ and its sequel respectively), all swooping camera moves and frequent cuts. The Bellas still challenge their rivals to an early ‘riff off’, although the rules of these musical showdowns have gotten so loose they’re basically blowing in the breeze at this point. The story still makes Beca choose between her musical career dreams and her Bella pals. There’s a very familiar rhythm throughout most of the film, and whether you were looking for the film to tread its own path or to deliver more of the same will determine your enjoyment of the film.
Not that hewing to a well-worn path is always a bad thing. Retaining writer Kay Cannon (who wrote both previous films) helps maintain some of the first film’s cheeky humour; a character delivering a glut of information is told ‘that’s a lot of exposition’, while characters lacking mobile reception whilst in peril exclaim ‘how convenient!’ Rebel Wilson is still a hoot to watch, blending physical comedy with uncomfortable one liners. The rest of the Bellas are also solid, and focusing on their friendships proves to still carry some weight, emotionally speaking.
With that said, there is a certain laziness to the reheating the ‘best of’ aspects of the franchise into an uninspired blend, even if the result has its pros. This same laziness seems to extend to the location work, which reduces its European locations to little more than stock footage. Like it or not, the ‘Pitch Perfect’ franchise doesn’t hold a candle to the great trilogies that have come to define cinema, so I struggle to answer whether the franchise has earned this victory lap. Fans of the first two films should enjoy this instalment, but they likely won’t be begging for a fourth.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out January 1.