Given how relentlessly cynical it is about college, young adults, and the massively overhyped world of competitive a cappella singing, I should probably like Pitch Perfect far more than I actually do. The film is sort of like Glee if Glee were aware of how ludicrously silly it is, and I am always up for a healthy dose of self-aware cynicism.
Pitch Perfect certainly delivers some of that, along with decent characterization, fun performances, and several outstanding musical numbers. It is the sort of film I can easily see audiences latching onto, and I predict it will be a strong mid-size hit for Universal. It certainly plays well to a large crowd, even if I often found myself politely chuckling while others laughed and cheered raucously.
Perhaps that is my core issue with the film. I like many of the central mechanics just fine, but the work as a whole is far too scattershot for me to enjoy unreservedly. Kay Cannon’s screenplay is largely content to coast by on humor it believes inherent to the tone and premise, and Jason Moore’s TV-level direction makes little effort to spruce up the progressively monotonous proceedings. Pitch Perfect has a good amount of heart and attitude, but is imprecise in its cynicism, inelegant in its comic style, and generally inept in narrative structure. I like the film, but not as much as I probably could.
Especially considering that main character Becca is not only played by Anna Kendrick – an actress I have not been able to shut up about since Up In The Air, routinely driving friends and family crazy whenever her name comes up – but shares almost completely in my pessimistic view of the world. She comes to College already disliking it (check!), doesn’t want to participate in any student groups (check!), is more interested in her hobbies and passions than her immediate surroundings (check!), likes singing but never knew she had actual talent until the school choir coerced her into joining (check!), and finds herself immediately annoyed by the campus a cappella group’s petty performance politics (check!). She is more or less my dream girl personified on film.
But I digress. Kendrick is, as always, a fantastically confident and assured screen presence, proving here that she can anchor an ensemble with ease. She is undoubtedly the film’s strongest element, and it helps that Becca herself is a legitimately interesting protagonist, realistically reluctant and well observed in ways that help ground the film’s zanier segments. Pitch Perfect indulges in the same teenage singing competition mania that Glee helped mainstream several years ago, but Becca’s disinterest and cynicism in the system allows the film to poke fun as well, having its cake and eating it too when executing the premise. The film is fully aware of the banality of its subject matter, which makes for an oddly charming, delightfully sarcastic tone.
Cannon’s script occasionally strays too far in that direction – several antagonistic characters are too cartoonish even for a story this self-aware – but is mostly balanced out by a clear affection for its core cast. The rag-tag bunch of girls that form the main a cappella group are nicely defined and share a pleasant, quirky chemistry, and the film takes special care to only mock them lovingly. Brittany Snow and Anna Camp are particular highlights as group leaders Chloe and Aubrey, obsessive and controlling to such keenly observed degrees that I can safely say I knew less-cartoonish versions of them in high school.
But most viewers will walk away singing the praises of Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy, the overweight, scene-stealing singer with attitude. It is a character type we are too familiar with these days – I don’t think one can call her a ‘breakout’ character if she was so clearly manufactured to break out – but Wilson is very good in the role, and easily earns the film’s biggest laughs.
Her presence does, however, raise an issue of stereotyping, one I believe warrants serious discussion. The film allows Fat Amy to be defined almost entirely by her weight – nearly every joke she delivers is based on contrasting attitude with appearance – and while I do appreciate the effort to create a strong, lovable obese character, I cannot personally approve of basing characters around broadly accepted stereotypes. We are laughing with her, yes, but would a single one of her personality traits or jokes be present were she thin?
It would not be as much of a problem if stereotypes were not indulged in other areas. The film apparently views those of Asian descent as strange extraterrestrials, giving each Asian character a wacky personality quirk that, again, defines them entirely. Becca’s Asian roommate is exaggeratedly standoffish and spiteful, and has friends who are equally indiscernible, while the choir’s Asian singer is habitually unable to speak above an extremely soft whisper. Are these common stereotypes about Asian-Americans? I am unaware if they are, but the film saves its broadest character traits for the Asian cast members, and though it is, again, done lovingly, I cannot give a free pass to stereotyping for comedic effect. Stereotyping can be a thoughtful or provocative comic tool – this Spring’s 21 Jump Street used stereotypes as a form of commentary, for instance – but Pitch Perfect’s attitude on the subject is rather mindless.
That being said, the film probably mines its biggest and most consistent laughs from these characters – which is exactly what I feel uncomfortable about – since much of the humor is fairly hit-and-miss. Kendrick gets a lot of good notes to play, finding organic character-based laughs interacting with peers who want to get her out of her shell, and Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins are absolutely uproarious as professional singing competition commenters (a concept that is exactly as crazy as it sounds). Otherwise, a lot of jokes fall flat – the film finds vomit-based humor much more enticing than I do – especially when focusing on the choir’s thinly-written, ego-driven rivals.
Still, I am most perturbed by the script’s misunderstanding of how an underdog story is arced, which seems like an odd thing to get wrong. As several competition classics have taught us, the most satisfying underdog narratives are the ones where the newcomers start out slow and gradually progress until the big conclusion, at which point everything pays off in spectacular fashion.
Pitch Perfect gets that last part right – the ending is excellent, fun and fulfilling on several levels – but Becca’s choir is generally awful until the very last performance, and the script crams a film’s worth of development into an extremely rushed third act. The big change we think must be coming from the very beginning – that Becca’s outside experience will allow her to dramatically reinvent the group – is confusingly held off well past the 90-minute mark, locking the film’s best character in a holding pattern and making the choir’s actions consistently frustrating.
Oh well. Pitch Perfect has enough pleasures to overcome its failings, even if the margin is fairly slim at times. I do enjoy most of these characters, I like that the setting and tone offer something a little different than the norm, and I believe audiences will get a kick out of it, even if the shelf-life is probably limited. Pitch Perfect is worth a watch, but prepare to be bothered by how much of its potential goes unrealized.