The latest installment in the Pitch Perfect franchise, about an all-female competitive a cappella group, is as delightfully unpretentious a comedy as one is likely to find these days coming out of Hollywood. Gone are the obnoxious and dull men who cluttered up the fun of the first two films with bland romantic subplots. Missing as well is the undercurrent of loneliness and failure that made the first film (about the unnatural drive to fit in with a group) and the second (about the power of female friendship) surprisingly emotionally resonant. Instead, this time around the young women (college students no longer) find themselves whisked away from their dull entry-level jobs and into a globe-trotting USO show, which offers a chance at international intrigue that, weirdly enough, turns a goofy comedy about singing into the best Fast and the Furious movie of 2017.
Much funnier than the previous two films, the comedy in Pitch Perfect 3 is almost entirely verbal, disregarding the gross-out jokes of prior films. Much of it is in the form of call-backs, but not simply references to earlier, funnier jokes (as in Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons), but in knowing, muttered asides building on our knowledge of the various characters and the films’ structures. (Missing as well is the questionable characterization of the group’s lone Hispanic member, an immigrant from Guatemala. The film’s one reference to her home country is merely a setup for one of the year’s finest puns). The Bellas classic riff-off game is turned in on itself when they challenge their fellow musicians on the tour, the bizarre rituals of competitive a cappella increasingly absurd in a real world where people can make music with things that aren’t their mouths. Anna Kendrick again leads the way, deadpanning her way through what amounts to the film’s emotional crisis: whether to take an opportunity at solo stardom or remain with the group. While Rebel Wilson finds herself in the middle of an action movie plot, with her estranged father, John Lithgow (the anti-music dad from Footloose) as antagonist. Her series of fights at the climax successfully, I kid you not, calls back to some of Michael Hui’s finest work. The music is much the same as always, though the Bellas are at least this time blissfully free of internal or musical conflict: they function as a team and through years of experience are not lacking in confidence, merely opportunity. No performance has yet matched Kendrick’s chilling “When I’m Gone” from the first film, but the finales have gotten better with every movie, and this one’s choice of song couldn’t be more, well, perfect.