Saturday, October 6, 2012

Sing it On: PITCH PERFECT


Pitch Perfect is a light, inconsequential comedy about college a cappella groups. That’s, as the movie is quick to tells us again and again, when people perform fully orchestrated songs with only their mouths. The movie is basically wall-to-wall music; even the Universal logo’s theme gets a dramatic vocal spin before the movie begins. The whole thing is peppy, bouncy, and scattered. It has a collision of standard plotlines: the let’s-put-on-a-show, the underdog-team-of-misfits and the follow-your-dreams, as well as some standard college comedy and rom com material. And yet, on some level it works. With the sheer likability of the cast and the strength of the melodies, it just about gets by, a little bit nerdy, a little bit sassy, and a little bit dirty.

We follow adorable Anna Kendrick as a too-cool-for-school aspiring D.J. who wants nothing to do with Barden University’s down-on-its-luck all-girls group. But wouldn’t you know it? She joins anyways. The leaders of the group (Anna Camp and Brittany Snow) are unhappy after a disastrous performance at last year’s a cappella finals and don’t think this year’s applicants bode well for their chances this time around. Aside from Kendrick, the girl with talent even she doesn’t quite realize, this is a ragtag group of weirdoes with standard goofy traits, roughly sketched. The one real comedic gem of the bunch is Fat Amy. As she explains, she calls herself that so skinny girls don’t have to say it behind her back. She’s played by Rebel Wilson (you might remember her as Kristen Wiig’s roommate in Bridesmaids), who brings a committed confidence to her very strange character.

As it so happens, the girl group has a heated rivalry with last year’s winners, an all-boy group who, surprise, surprise, attend the same college. That the two best a cappella groups in the country come from the same school is funny, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be a joke. It’s just narratively convenient. The leader of the boys (Adam DeVine) is a real jerk, but there’s a sweet guy among them too. He’s played by Skylar Astin and it’s quickly apparent that he’ll be paired off with Kendrick for the duration of the film, first as endearingly antagonistic competitor, then as buddy, then as…well take a wild guess. Anyways, the two groups march through the qualifying rounds with a routine inevitability. There’s no tension to the competition sequences. (They’re not funny either, despite John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks playing what is essentially Fred Willard’s role from Best in Show.) Of course both teams will make it. We’ve got to keep hearing them sing.

Much like Bring It On, the Kirsten Dunst cheerleading comedy from, sheesh, over a decade ago, did for its chosen extracurricular activity, Pitch Perfect is a movie that makes much out of its easily recognizable, but somewhat insular, world, coining the kinds of phrases that will be surely quoted in school choir rooms and a cappella groups for years to come. (“A-ca-what?” That sort of thing.) The plot of the movie is largely interested in watching the students practice routines, argue about song choices, clash with rivals, grow closer together through singing, and performing. It’s a good thing that these songs are well done. They’re easy to listen to and often brought a smile to my face and a tap to my toes. The actors are all fine singers (and/or were dubbed or auto-tuned to perfection) and bring some fine charisma to their characters’ stage presences.

But let me be clear. This is a sloppily made movie. It is basically a distended sitcom pilot, and not even a particularly good sitcom either. Director Jason Moore and screenwriter Kay Cannon are both making their feature debuts after working for years in television, so it’s somewhat understandable if not entirely excusable. The movie is visually indifferent with a large ensemble that remains mostly background as the leads act out standard plots and relationships that don’t quite pay off. There’s even a little joke late in the game in which two mostly anonymous supporting characters are forced to remind one of the main characters that they’ve “been here the whole time.” The personalities may sell a lot of the zippy jokes, but other times, like in a particularly gross scene involving a big puddle of vomit, the writing feels miscalculated.

A handful of key moments between characters seem to happen unseen between scenes and a large part of the middle of the storyline contains scenes that could probably be shuffled in any order and still work (or not) just as well. I’m sure there are endless alternate takes and deleted scenes on the proverbial cutting room floor with this one. Still, I must say I found myself enjoying it slightly more often than not. And judging from the loud giggling I heard in the theater throughout the entirety of the movie, I’ll bet it’ll find a spot in many slumber party viewing rotations for at least the next few years.

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