Pitch Perfect: Some High Notes, But This Film Is Mostly Flat
Remember when Glee first came out? It had subversive one-liners, flashy auto-tuned a cappella arrangements of popular songs, and was insanely popular? Pitch Perfect, the new comedy from Avenue Q director Jason Moore and 30 Rock writer Kay Cannon, certainly circles around enough of what made Glee a smash that it should be quite popular among teenage audiences upon its wide release this weekend. However, that doesn’t necessarily make it cinematic, and it definitely doesn’t make it original or particularly interesting. As a vehicle to showcase the charms of Anna Kendrick or the humor of Rebel Wilson, it works, but its narrative is episodic, its laughs are too few, and– worst of all– its characters are flat stereotypes. The film wants to take the shortcut route to wacky, but instead it merely goes out of tune.
Beca (Anna Kendrick) does NOT want to go to college. She has aspirations of moving to Los Angeles immediately to become a famous DJ, which may immediately lead you to the question: how many famous mashup DJs are there in the world much less in LA? I digress. She is brought to college against her will, when her father makes her a proposal that seems incredibly reasonable/unwise: get involved in one extra-curricular activity, stick it out for the rest of the year, and if you want to move to LA afterward, he’ll support her. She’s roped into the a cappella world, where the Bellas (led by Brittany Snow and Anna Camp) are hoping to finally win at the International Championships of A Cappella. To get there, they must beat out the Treble Makers (led by Adam DeVine of Comedy Central’s Workaholics) from their same school– the odds of two groups from the same small school making it to the finals seem overwhelmingly small, but once again, I digress. The Bellas do the same old routine of songs from the eighties time and time again, whereas the Treble Makers do rap, hip hop, and contemporary songs to invigorate the crowd. If you’re wondering whether Beca will use her DJing skills to create a more modern mashup to win the competition at the end, here’s a hint: duh.
Movies like this aren’t about the surprises, as there are none– it’s all in the joy of the execution. There are some joys to be found here, primarily from Anna Kendrick, who is a comfortable and charming lead. She gets to play the role of the relatable girl who stays grounded amongst the a cappella lunatics around her. She strikes the right tone (ugh, music puns are unavoidable in this review) from beginning to end, and I found her romance with a nice Treble Maker played by Skylar Astin to be sweet and believable. The chemistry in the relationship is there, even though it goes through the same contrived breakup that happens in every female-led comedy. The guy is too affectionate, she dumps him because she feels she doesn’t deserve that kind of attention, and then they reconcile. In male-led comedy, the man always does something terrible and has to beg to get her back… why aren’t women allowed to make any mistake in budding film relationships other than feeling pity for themselves?
Then there’s Fat Amy, played by Rebel Wilson. Wilson’s comedic timing and line delivery are first-rate, there’s no questioning. However, I struggled with the concept behind her character. It will inevitably draw comparisons to Melissa McCarthy’s performance in Bridesmaids, so let’s have at it. The great thing about McCarthy was her character was designed to be confident, sexual, and brutally honest… yet her weight is only brought up once, toward the end, in a moment of tender honesty. Rebel Wilson’s character is designed to be confident, sexual, and brutally honest… but mostly just in regards to how fat she is. Nearly every joke out of her mouth is either about being out of shape. When she rips her shirt open at the end of a performance, it’s supposed to read as “I’m proud of my figure,” I’m sure, but instead it seems more like Chris Farley in the SNL Chippendale’s sketch– her weight *is* the joke. I felt even more uneasy with the lesbian character. Not the performance, mind you, but the persistent jokes about how she must be a lesbian, followed by her behaving in some stereotypical lesbian way. Again, I realize it’s supposed to read differently, but I wonder… if this was a movie about a group of guys, and all of the guys joked about how one of them must be gay, followed by cuts to a stereotypically femme guy swooshing about, would we still find that funny? Why is it acceptable when it’s a lesbian?
You may think I’m merely playing the role of the PC police, and trust me, I have no issue with political incorrectness in comedy. However, they must come from developed characters who have a beating heart and a story to tell. This isn’t a movie. It’s an extended comedy sketch. Outside of Beca, no character has anything resembling dimension, which is fine if the film is going solely for Will Ferrell-esque chaotic free-for-all laughs… but they’re not. The jokes aren’t non-stop or wacky enough. Clearly the film wants to have its wacky characters, have heartfelt touching moments, yet avoid going through the difficult work of developing the characters enough to earn those moments. Again, for teenagers this likely won’t be a problem, as the plot breezes along, the fat jokes are quotable, and the songs are all radio-friendly. However, to folks who have seen character-driven comedy, it will feel remarkably insubstantial. During the a cappella competitions, John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks are on stand-by doing one-liners about the performances… yet it’s never clear who they’re talking to. Concerts don’t have play-by-play like a sporting event; you couldn’t hear the music otherwise. In their scenes, there’s merely a wireless mic sitting on the table, and the actors don’t even bother talking into it. These scenes are a nice metaphor for Pitch Perfect on the whole: they have some funny ideas but don’t feel like developing them, so they just throw them up there, hoping you won’t notice the absence of thought.