Over-the-top without being crazy, the new musical-comedy "Pitch Perfect" seems like a blatant "Glee" rip-off and it’s clear it was at least inspired by "Glee." But in reality, the film is a more whacky cousin of the popular TV show using the backdrop of a college a cappella competition to showcase a bunch of zany characters that learn to work together while trading sharp-tongued barbs. And while the humor can sometimes rely on comebacks and put-downs, it’s surprisingly not mean-spirited - even when it’s being mean.
As directed by TV director Jason Moore ("Dawson’s Creek," "Brothers & Sisters"), who was also Tony-nominated for the Broadway musical "Avenue Q," the perky story follows a slightly edgy college freshman named Beca (Anna Kendrick "Up in the Air") who has dreams of becoming a record producer. In fact, she spends every spare moment making mash-ups of songs on her computer that sound like gay dance club hits. On move-in day, she meets cocky Jesse (Skylar Astin, "Spring Awakening") who randomly sings to her from a car. Later they meet again in the campus radio station where Beca hopes to spin her tunes.
Before long, Beca is approached to join the The Bellas, an all-girl singing group headed by Aubrey (Anna Camp) and Chloe (Brittany Snow), whose main rivals are the Trouble Tones led by the obnoxious Bumper (Adam Devine). Along with two other a cappella groups, the four compete against each other (and the nation) in a year-long competition that ends in the Finals that take place at Lincoln Center. In true Joseph Campbell movie hero fashion, Beca refuses to join The Bellas but is later coerced during an awkward shower confrontation with a naked Chloe.
Once she makes it into the group, there is a celebration for all the a cappella groups where Jesse spots Beca and starts to make his move. A lover of movie scores, he woos Beca with a stack of movies he insists she watch. Beca states she can’t get through a movie to the end and would rather create music all day. But the two have chemistry, despite Beca attempting to fight it tooth and nail.
Meanwhile, The Bellas have their own problems. Aubrey is a super control freak and is hell-bent on doing the same routine they do every year hoping that one time it will be their magic ticket to the Finals. Her ragtag group is made up of some nutty characters including Lily (Hana Mae Lee) an Asian girl who can’t speak above a whisper and Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) who is as brazenly honest as she is talented.
The main drive of the story is whether or not The Bellas can overcome their staleness and defy the competition’s expectations by beating the cocky Trouble Tones. It’s also whether or not Beca can get over herself, fall for the guy that loves her, and convince The Bellas to take some risks. It all sounds pretty standard, and as plots go, it is. There are a number of plot points that are handled quickly and/or lazily, but for some reason, it’s easy to overlook. It’s the stuff in-between that makes this film stand out, especially the dialogue. Many of the asides and flippant comments come off as improvised which makes the dialogue feel fresh and current. Rebel Wilson gets most of these lines, half of which are said under her breath and are truly hysterical. The whole tone of the film is a bit extreme so the acid-tongued humor comes fast and sharp, but doesn’t sink into cheapness. Oh, there’s some purposely offensive non-PC stuff here, but that’s kind of where the humor lies. And it oddly doesn’t come off as aggressive.
The other treat here is the music. With actors who can really belt out the songs and with a bunch of clever mash-ups thrown in to the mix, the performance scenes are fun and electric. A stand out scene is a battle between the four campus groups where they must spontaneously come up with songs that fit a particular theme and bounce them off of each other by linking the songs together with a key word. (It’s much less complicated than I just made it seem.)
Anna Kendrick is terrific as usual, although at times she seems almost annoyed that she’s in the film. It’s her character’s attitude of course, but one wonders if she was thinking "I was nominated for an Oscar and now I’m in ’Glee: The College Years.’" Regardless, who knew she had such good pipes? And speaking of pipes, Broadway veteran Skylar Astin has a dreamy voice and as the film goes on, an undeniably sexy charm. Rebel Wilson is truly the "it" comedienne of the moment and she doesn’t fail us. Her character is so comfortable with her appearance that her whole persona is refreshing and devoid of stereotypes. And for eye candy for the gals and gays, look no further than Freddie Stroma ("Harry Potter") who plays campus DJ Luke. He has the tiniest of roles but when he lifts his shirt to show his abs, all we want is for him to be on screen forever.
As a bonus, Elizabeth Banks (who is also a producer on the film) and John Michael Higgins play the competition emcees. The two make a number of inappropriate comments that get wackier and more belligerent as the film goes on which makes them all the more welcome when they appear. In fact, it’s the dialogue that will have audiences repeating lines for years to come. This is this generation’s "Mean Girls" and a welcome addition to the lexicon of quotable movies like "Bring it On" and "Heathers." Add some giddy musical numbers and you have an infectious treat truly easy to digest. I guess in some ways, that gives the whole affair a perfect pitch.
Beca :: Anna Kendrick
Jesse :: Skylar Astin
Fat Amy :: Rebel Wilson
Bumper :: Adam DeVine
Aubrey :: Anna Camp
Chloe :: Brittany Snow
John :: John Higgins
Gail :: Elizabeth Banks
Benji :: Ben Platt
Stacie :: Alexis Knapp
Cynthia Rose :: Ester Dean
Lilly :: Hana Lee
Jessica :: Kelley Jakle
Denise :: Wanetah Walmsley
Ashley :: Shelley Regner
Mary Elise :: Caroline Fourmy
Kori :: Nicole Lovince
Donald :: Utkarsh Ambudkar
Director, Jason Moore; Screenwriter, Kay Cannon; Producer, Paul Brooks; Producer, Max Handelman; Producer, Elizabeth Banks; Executive Producer, Scott Niemeyer; Cinematographer, Julio Macat; Production Design, Barry Robison; Film Editor, Lisa Churgin; Costume Designer, Salvador Perez; Original Music, Christophe Beck; Original Music, Mark Kilian; Casting, Kerry Barden; Casting, Paul Schnee; Art Director, Jeremy Woolsey; Set Decoration, David Hack.