“Pitch Perfect 3” takes place after the main female characters — members of a competitive a cappella group called the Bellas — have graduated from college. As such, it initially struggles to find ways to keep them together before sending them all on a multi-country USO tour. The Bellas aren’t sent to Afghanistan or Iraq, but to Spain, Italy, and France, presumably because those countries are somewhat pleasanter to visit and shoot in.
This third installment begins with a manic performance by the Bellas of the old Britney Spears hit “Toxic” while on board a ship. Patricia “Fat Amy” Hobart (Rebel Wilson) suddenly drops from the ceiling and sprays everywhere with a fire extinguisher, and then both she and Beca (Anna Kendrick) make a slow-motion jump from the boat, which has caught on fire. This inexplicable and confusing opener is left dangling for most of the film until it is taken up again at the climax.
Around 10 minutes or so of “Pitch Perfect 3” go by before the Bellas are sent to entertain the troops, and they suggest a brief attempt to bring these characters into a “Girls”-like aesthetic of small apartments and bad jobs and diminished expectation. A short a cappella rendition on the soundtrack of the main musical theme from “Sex and the City” is a somewhat pointed reminder that these girls aren’t going to be living any kind of fantasy life — until the USO plot kicks in.
Beca is trying to produce music, and she tells people that she sings now just “for fun.” When the Bellas are invited to a reunion, their attempt at performing is sidelined by Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), who sings a pop song with her girl group. This song is about “not being a Barbie doll” and being empowered and so forth, but the choreography is the usual pop stripper moves, and the girls are all dressed in a very Barbie-like way, which underlines the blatant “I’ll have my cake and eat it, too” of so much modern pop music.
Aubrey (Anna Camp), who suffers from stage fright, blithely mentions that her high-ranking military father “basically killed Osama bin Laden” and can get them a gig entertaining the troops. This line of dialogue strikes a sour note that is tough to recover from in what is supposed to be a lightweight piece of entertainment, but it basically gets forgotten as boilerplate musical numbers come and go on screen.
Once the USO tour is set into motion, it falls to Wilson to provide much of the humor here, and she is a skilled enough comic to push the narrative over most of its hurdles. But even she can’t quite finesse or explain John Lithgow, who plays the criminal father of Fat Amy. Lithgow does an entertainingly terrible accent in “Pitch Perfect 3” that sounds like Dick Van Dyke’s disastrously tin-eared Cockney in “Mary Poppins,” and this is perplexing. Since Fat Amy is from Australia, and Lithgow’s character mentions going to Sydney, was Lithgow actually trying for Australian, and this god-awful watered-down ‘ello-guvnuh accent was the result?
There is a half-hearted competition between the Bellas and the other bands they are touring with, but it never comes to much. The older commentators played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins return to follow the girls around for a documentary they are making, but they both seem to have wandered in from an improv-based comedy.
Another kind of plot kicks in when Lithgow’s character kidnaps some of the Bellas in order to blackmail his own daughter into giving him access to a bank account in the Cayman Islands, and then the movie structurally winds its way back to the first scene, but Tarantino this isn’t.
Wilson does do a fairly funny slapstick fight sequence where she takes on lots of men and then exhausts herself while using a bunch of kitchen utensils as weapons before saying, “This is way too much cardio.” Wilson’s comic routines here set her apart from the others in the cast, and they more than amply hint that she should be set loose in her own vehicles far, far away from the other girls and all their “Glee”-like karaoke.