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'Pitch Perfect 2' review: Doesn't hit the high notes of the original

Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) in "Pitch Perfect 2."

Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) in "Pitch Perfect 2." Credit: Richard Cartwright

In the summer of 2012, the comedy "Pitch Perfect" demonstrated a finely tuned cultural ear. The story of a college women's a cappella group hit all the right notes: a bit of "Glee," a lot of female empowerment and two rising stars in Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson. Thanks also to some cool choreography and sparkling arrangements of popular songs, "Pitch Perfect" became a $65 million hit.

For "Pitch Perfect 2," Elizabeth Banks is in the director's chair, and she also reprises her role as Gail, a vapid radio host. Like the original, "Pitch Perfect 2" can be sunny, goofy fun. Oddly, though, this sequel's mean-spirited ethnic jokes can also sound culturally tone-deaf.

The movie's setting is still Barden University, and Kendrick returns as Beca, star of the singing Barden Bellas. They've suffered another public humiliation, this time thanks to Fat Amy (Wilson), who suffers a wardrobe malfunction while performing for the Obamas. A new addition, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), just might be the Bellas' secret weapon against a lockstep German group, Das Sound Machine (led by Flula Borg and Birgitte Hjort Sarensen).

The movie has its inspired moments, as when a secret underground contest draws the Tone Hangers (whose members include comedians Reggie Watts and John Hodgman) and several actual Green Bay Packers. Kendrick's Beca is distracted by an internship at a recording studio, but Wilson's Fat Amy steps up to the plate with one-liners, slapstick and some endearing scenes with her beau, Bumper (Adam DeVine). The rest of the returning cast, including Skylar Astin, Anna Camp and Hana Mae Lee, fight for screen time.

Most of the ethnic jokes come from John Michael Higgins as a Stephen Colbert-ish radio host. He is meant to satirize old white America but ends up representing it. "There they go," he says of an Indian singing group, "running offstage to take some more of our jobs." A new Bella named Flo (Chrissie Fit) talks only about the grinding poverty of her native Guatemala. Eventually, we learn she will likely be deported, easily the film's most callous wisecrack.

It's a shame "Pitch Perfect 2" strikes these sour notes. As "American Idol" host Randy Jackson used to say about wobbly performances, it's pitchy.

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