When our lead character Beca first learns about one of the many a cappella groups on campus, she curiously yet dismissively says, “Oh right, that’s a thing now.” This adequately sums up my feelings towards a cappella. As someone who loved the drama club back in high school, I recognize the importance of nurturing the arts as an extracurricular activity. I am happy that yet another art form exists so that young people can explore their hidden talents. And having said all that, I still don’t get it.
I don’t know when these clubs became all the rage, but I suspect it happened around the time that GLEE became a hit TV show. However, even that seems to have been dwarfed by the strong communities that have developed around this particular form of music.
At Barton College, where PITCH PERFECT is set, there are four a cappella groups, two of which are focused on here. The all-male Treblemakers are the kings of the school, winning every competition they attend. Their leader, Bumper (Adam DeVine) is the conceited bully of the school, belittling everyone around him because his status dictates that he can. What would have stereotypically been the football jock when I attended school is now someone who can belt out “Don’t Stop the Music.” I’m getting old.
On the other end of the spectrum, the all-female Bellas rarely get to compete. When they finally do appear at a championship, soloist Aubrey (Anna Camp – THE HELP, TRUE BLOOD) has a rather disgusting mishap that assures they won’t be taking home any trophies.
One year later, though her heart is in the right place, Aubrey is running the Bellas right into the ground. No one wants to be part of the group, least of all Beca (Anna Kendrick – UP IN THE AIR, THE TWILIGHT SAGA), an aspiring DJ who is being forced to attend college. Nevertheless, in a bid to convince her professor father that she is willing to give it a shot, she gets a spot on the Bellas. Since the group has tarnished their reputation even further than usual, these new Bellas are a band of social misfits. Unfortunately, Aubrey can’t seem to let go of the traditions that have not served the Bellas well thus far. Beca and several of the other group members yearn to break out of the mainstream by shaking up their act and giving the Treblemakers a run for their money.
PITCH PERFECT wants very much to be to a cappella what BRING IT ON was to cheerleading. We have likeable leads, a mismatched romance (here with Skylar Astin) and a competition to show the world who’s boss. But here’s the trick. There have been other similarly themed films which try to be the singular cult movie about their niche form of expression. BRING IT ON wound up being a crossover hit, breaking out of that niche and perhaps even giving new life and attention to cheerleading in general (It also spawned several straight to video sequels that were twice as horrible as their predecessor was delightful, but that’s neither here nor there.). But for every film like that, there were two films like STICK IT, a gymnastics-themed film from a few years back which is probably beloved by practitioners of the sport and completely irrelevant to anyone else. PITCH PERFECT will definitely have a cult following. The trick is to move beyond the cult following into something more. I believe that PITCH PERFECT will endure beyond its core group, thanks to that little something extra.
The way it does this is through comedy. I laughed five times during the trailer for PITCH PERFECT and at least five times that number during the film itself. You can thank a stellar cast made up of seasoned professionals and relative newcomers, who seem equally at home with the scripted material as they do with ad-libbing. This film is funny, there is no question about it. And if it wasn’t, much of it would probably be pretty unbearable.
Anna Kendrick is transcendently awesome as Beca. A lot of us were hoping that UP IN THE AIR would be her ticket to big screen stardom, but it hasn’t happened yet. If there is any justice out there, success should come to Kendrick. She is fantastic as the aspiring DJ. Her wants and desires never seem self-centered or whiny, which could have easily happened in less capable hands. Her attitude, confidence and the way she overcomes her flaws make her someone worth rooting for.
Rebel Wilson (BRIDESMAIDS, THE BACHELORETTE) threatens to steal the show as Fat Amy, a name she has given herself to show the haters that she’s fine with her appearance. Fat Amy doesn’t always have the most progressive ideas, but her character could well be a role model to a lot of young girls out there. Writer Kay Cannon and director Jason Moore never make her weight a punchline. It’s a fantastic role that is made hilarious mostly by Wilson’s incredible improvisational skills.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Adam DeVine, whose villainous Bumper is more annoying than anything else. I am unfamiliar with DeVine’s work on WORKAHOLICS, but here he seems to be copying and then amplifying every performance Jason Bateman has ever given. DeVine is very self-conscious in his role. It always seems like he’s not playing a character and is instead riffing on-screen.
Films like PITCH PERFECT are at their best when their musical numbers make you smile and want to bop around in your seat. This is something it accomplished a little less than half the time. Some of the acts had an energy about them while others left me cold. A running time that approaches two hours also didn’t do much to alleviate my restlessness. It should be noted here that much of my ambivalence may be the product of a generation gap. I’m sure many younger viewers knew all the songs being sung in this film. I only knew the older tunes which were classified as out of touch.
If I were twenty years younger, I would probably add at least another half-star to my review. It’s strange to think that years from now, this generation will look back on this era as a Golden Age of singing and dancing films. Films like STEP UP, STOMP THE YARD and even less successful films like BURLESQUE target younger audiences through music in a manner not seen in many years. For the rest of us, it sort of falls on deaf ears. Remember however that most of the older generation didn’t get our stuff either. I had BREAKIN’, the kids today have PITCH PERFECT. The cycle continues.
Rarely have I done so much waffling between star ratings as I have with PITCH PERFECT. It had good comedy, a little bit of insight and a skilled performance by Kendrick. If any one of these elements had been missing, it would have been hard to think it anything more than average. But in the end, the film does attain something that makes it more charming, more enduring than the competition. That achievement makes it worth a spotlight of its own. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated PG-13 for sexual material, language and drug references
– Running Time: 1hr 52mins.