Watching Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect 3 is something like watching Harrison Ford in Return of the Jedi or your high school’s football coach teaching health class. Here is a professional who can’t find the wherewithal to hide a boredom that seems tinged with disdain. Kendrick has given many spirited, memorable performances, but here, even more so than in the previous Pitch Perfect, she’s playing Woman Who Isn’t Sure Why She’s There. As Beca, one of the film series’ singing/dancing a cappella dynamos, she again hoofs gamely through the many production numbers, but there’s an aloof flatness to her delivery in dialogue scenes, like she’s running lines in rehearsal for one of her Joe Swanberg indies rather than lighting up the screen in a tentpole holiday musical sequel.
That refusal to sparkle becomes the most interesting thing in this exhausted installment, which finds the Bellas — the collegiate a cappella troupe from the first two films — joining a USO tour just to have something to do. When Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) behaves abominably, Kendrick’s Beca, the straight-woman foil whose reactions would usually fuel the comedy, tends to duck eye contact, to knit up her brows and mutter things like, “Why are you like this?” That’s what you might actually say, in real life, if Fat Amy was mooching off you. Here, the line seems to slip out of Kendrick’s mouth, like it’s a thing she thought and didn’t know she was saying, like the way you might catch yourself huffing, when alone, “I’m so stupid!” or “I hate my life!” In that, I must give Kendrick credit: She’s entirely convincing in the role of an adult annoyed to be surrounded by assholes still singing radio hits in meaningless competitions. Yes, that USO tour somehow becomes a contest, where one of the three performing groups has a shot at appearing on TV with DJ Khaled. Also, inexplicably, the tour is off the French Riviera, where everyone stays at the poshest hotels.
The Pitch Perfect films have offered an increasingly unpalatable blend of pop-song empowerment, rah-rah women’s friendship, and broad gross-out comedy. (At the screening before this installment, I heard one young man assure his friend, “I thought the last one wouldn’t be funny, but just five minutes in, there was projectile vomiting.”) By Pitch Perfect 2, the comedy was at odds with the friendships, the dutiful outrageousness laying waste to any chance of emotional connection. Fat Amy — that’s the character’s official name — wreaks so much havoc that it’s hard to fathom why the group hasn’t given her the boot.
Only the lead Bellas (played by Kendrick, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, and Hailee Steinfeld) were anything like people, with the backbenchers each caricatures whose one note was too often grounded in white comedy writers’ reflexive ideas about ethnicity, nationality, or sexuality. Chrissie Fit’s Flo, from Guatemala, would mention, as laugh lines, her fears about being deported or the fact that members of her family had been kidnapped; the Bellas, purportedly a sisterhood of besties, would always look uncomfortable for a moment and then get back to worrying over serious problems, like winning a singing contest.
The good news, I guess, is that Pitch Perfect 3, directed by Trish Sie (Step Up: All In), is not overtly racist in the manner of its predecessor. Instead, the non-white Bellas are just afterthoughts — is that an improvement? There’s nothing like parity of screen time, but there is in memorableness. Even the leads don’t get good moments this time around, with the exception of Camp, who plays the poised, WASP-y, high-achieving, Ivanka-like Aubrey. Her big scenes involve her character’s yearning for the attention of her father, which none of the Bellas can be bothered to take seriously, but her funny scene comes near the end, when she exults at the idea of not being a Bella anymore. Being perfect all the time has taken such a strain on her! The comic set pieces, meanwhile, are nonsensical and don’t build persuasively. That also goes for the emotional arcs.
The final scenes of Pitch Perfect 3 might have been fine first scenes of a funnier, richer, more thoughtful movie. After gritting their way through a charmless adventure featuring rote action-movie fights and explosions, plus less-inspired pop covers than usual, the Bellas all admit to each other that, actually, they have better things to do than a cappella medleys of songs from old Now That’s What I Call Music comps. Flo, once a one-note joke, is franchising her start-up food truck, while Camp’s fancy-pants Aubrey plans to ditch material things and try life as a doula. She confesses, at one point, “I don’t know how else to live,” which might double as an admission of failure from the filmmakers: They can’t conceive of Aubrey or any of the Bellas outside the structure of the Pitch Perfect formula.
The Bellas aren’t invested in the film’s competition, and the filmmakers’ aren’t invested in it, and you probably won’t be, either. So why bother even having one? Why make a sequel whose climax is everyone realizing that they’d rather not do this anymore? Why not, instead, make a movie about these women finding their way into life, maintaining these friendships, and still getting together to sing once in a while? Why not make one that’s worth Anna Kendrick’s time?
A couple of stray thoughts: Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins turn up again as competition announcers who cover a cappella like a sport. Banks, as always, charms, and Higgins’s lines have been calibrated so that this time it’s clear that we’re meant to laugh at his character’s sexism rather than with it. (Starting a speech with, “And as these women approach thirty and cease to be of value as human beings…” is winningly mordant, but what performer could sell hackery like his quip about his camera being on the Bellas tighter “than mom jeans on camel toe”?) Also, the traditional Pitch Perfect riff-off — in which the Bellas challenge other groups to improvised mash-ups of pop songs — goes sour here, not because the other performers on the USO tour pick up instruments rather than sing a cappella, but because the blinkered Bellas get cross and keep noting that nobody else is following rules that only they know or care about. Finally, John Lithgow turns up, singing Chicago’s “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” but, unconscionably, Pitch Perfect 3 cuts away before he can hit the chorus. Why are these people like this?
Pitch Perfect 3
Directed by Trish Sie
Opens December 22