There is a genre of film that is rather young. It’s very pro-alt/freak/nerd culture and used to end with these weirdos ending up with the normals. This is shifting into ‘being a freak is better.’ Some examples try to soft peddle this and go say ‘weirdos aren’t weird’–I’m thinking of Step Up (2006) and dates back, at least, to Footloose (1984). The ‘freak is better’ category has a better message, but faces a very difficult problem in keeping the lactose from coagulating. The newest entry to the form is Pitch Perfect (2012), based on the novel Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory (2009) by Mickey Rapkin. Oh, Mickey, your book must be so fine. Will that be the last song-based allusion? Not aca-likely.
Beca (Anna Kendrick) is a would-be music producer (which seems to entail her stealing and remixing other people’s music) who has come to Barden University with a chip on her shoulder and many piercings in her ear. Daddy (John Benjamin Hickey) is a professor of comparative literature–so of course she’s a techno-nerd–and basically forced her to get a college education before going off to LA to “pay her dues” and become a hack…I mean producer. In her first moments at school, she’s given a rape whistle and a young gentleman, Jesse (Skylar Astin), sings at her. Jesse is a well-adjusted boy who, with roomy Benji (Ben Platt), intend to join one of the a cappella groups. There’s the Treblemakers (all-boy), the Bellas (all-girl), the Harmonics (mixed singers), and the High Notes (mixed stoners). Beca isn’t interested. Instead, she gets an internship at the school radio station (as does Jesse who wants to produce the score for films). Then her father makes her a deal: if she gets involved, really tries in college for a year, and at the end still doesn’t like it, she can go to LA. So, she tries for the Bellas and gets in. So begins the narrative.
The affix, with a hint of tmesis or at least some morpheses, is the most-used and infectious joke in the film. I mean, of course, the form “aca-[suffix].” Ex. “Aca-scuse me?” “That’s aca-mazing.” “Aca-awesome!” The puns don’t end there. Writer Kay Cannon fills the script to the brim with plays on words and other solid comedy. One from the trailer: “I have a feeling we should kiss.” “Yeah, I sometimes have a feeling I should do crystal meth, but then I think, better not.” I’m not necessarily in love with Rebel Wilson (as Fat Amy), but she won me over here (that is, with the help of Kay Cannon). The same goes for Adam DeVine (as Bumper). These are serious accomplishments. Also, the psychotic Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) was hilarious.
However, one serious beef with the story: who ever thought Anna Kendrick could play the tough, cool girl? Kendrick isn’t the kind of woman that runs you over with her spunky sass and sharp wit. She doesn’t have the features. She’s a Doris Day to Emma Stone‘s Katharine Hepburn. That’s almost a terrible analogy, but it points to the truth. The reality is that Kendrick has played, so far as I’ve seen, a sweet, adorable, sweet, and lovely young woman, wet behind the ears in some respect, and is basically adorable, sweet, lovely, and adorable. Semi-punk with hidden vocal talents of which she is utterly unaware is a departure from this vector. She is probably better suited to the alpha Aubrey (Anna Camp) or, even better, the initially submissive and kindly Chloe (Brittany Snow).
Don’t run away with the idea that this only hits the medium-high brow. No, there’s plenty of the lowest brow they could get. This includes extreme vomit, fat-based humor, and copious amounts of Kendrick cleavage. I wonder if Kendrick, when shooting or seeing this movie, thought, “Gee, my character has more tube-top/button-up combinations than any woman alive.” I find that kind of thing to be pretty cynical and unlikely to satiate any alpha males that would otherwise dislike the movie. Is that me stereotyping or the producers of the film? Hard to say. But these teen-oriented–sorry twenty-somethings–movies tend to tick off boxes or cover bases which leads to extreme structural contrivance. You could map this thing on a textbook diagram. Hey, blame Aristotle.
The direction, by Jason Moore, is mixed-to-good. The severest challenge to a movie of this kind is to keep the non-believers from rolling their eyes with cheesy moments. At the showing I went to, there were plenty of believers in the audience. (People applauded the musical numbers, that’s how great the audience was.) Despite their energy, I looked and listened askance at some of the staging and singing. I don’t care if you’re at the bottom of an empty swimming pool, a natural voice sounds hollow without a microphone. An individual does not sing in stereo. This tended to undermine my confidence in the group numbers as well. A cappella groups are absolutely capable of creating post-production-like sounds and yet I was very suspicious that the numbers were polished and added to.
As Jesse knows, and explains in the film, music can affect the way you view a movie. Music is a manipulator. You don’t always know when it’s working. But Pitch Perfect was not particularly subtle in its use, making it easier to withstand the spell. That’s a misuse. Pitch Perfect needed a little better ear if it wanted to be great. For those who have seen the movie, consider the Riff-Off scene. This is probably the best and worst part of the movie. The best part is when Beca looks around and sees everyone enjoying themselves. Absolutely genuine moment. But the Riffing-Off itself was horrible. First, I’m not sure I got the rules, but I’ll chalk that up as my problem. Second, a single voice generally won’t out sing a group of voices. Third, where is this on campus? This is the staging issue. It’s clearly a set piece and if it isn’t, the exterior was never established. If we’re having a college movie about a college experience, bring us to college and spend time on campus. Build some nostalgia. Think Dead Poets Society (1989).
But let’s be honest, this was a fun movie and one of the best in the genre. It’s not nearly as cheesy as it could have been. (Accomplishment.) It’s more literally–word-based–funny than one usually expects of an American comedy. (Accomplishment.) But it won’t stand the test of time. Expect that movie–the one that stands the test of time–to come within the next few years.