Once a little-known subculture of the collegiate world, with rites and names as arcane as any secret society (Whiffenpoofs, anyone?), a capella is enjoying a bright moment in the spotlight, thanks in large part to the popularity of Glee and reality TV competitions like The Sing-Off. And now in Pitch Perfect, it has made it to the romantic comedy big time, starring Anna Kendrick, best known for her Oscar-nominated portrayal of the uptight young executive opposite George Clooney in Up In The Air. Here she’s still sulky, playing Becca, a mildly goth college freshman who yearns to leave college and pursue a career in music production.
Based on a nonfiction book by GQ editor Mickey Rapkin about the competitive collegiate a capella scene, the messy screenplay by Kay Cannon (Emmy-nominated 30 Rock writer/producer) suffers flat notes, sour chords and predictable harmonies, but thanks to a tight cast and fresh, energetic performances, delivers an enjoyable concert experience just the same.
Due to the usual forced logic of romantic comedies, Becca ends up joining an all-women’s a capella group called the Bellas. Led by mean girl Aubrey (Anna Camp), the Bellas are looking to come back from their humiliation at the previous year’s national a capella championship. Because this is a sloppy script, their chief rival is none other than the Treblemakers, the all-men’s group at the very same college, just one of many unlikelinesses we have to overlook. But never mind that.
The point is that this rival group is joined by fellow freshman Jesse, played by Skylar Astin, well known on Broadway for his turn in Spring Awakening but fairly unknown in the movies. Not conventionally hunky but cuter and cuter with every scene, Astin is utterly natural and warm as the college guy who wins our heart with intellect and sweetness. He definitely made a fan out of me.
Now, are the actual plot points of the love story between Jesse and Becca in any way interesting or less than hackneyed? Not in the least. But never mind. It’s all about the music. Kendrick nearly sells the more ridiculous aspects of her petulant character, managing to convey disaffection while winning our affection. Both she and Astin are musical theater veterans and it shows. And they are supported by a very strong ensemble, including Rebel Wilson as (Fat) Amy, in what is very clearly the equivalent of the Melissa McCarthy role in Bridesmaids (which was Wilson’s breakthrough movie). Alexis Knapp stands out as a sexpot with real comic chops. And Hana Mae Lee’s kewpie doll face and deadpan delivery takes her far in her role as whispering psycho-adorable Lilly.
Which brings us to the film’s sourest note: its Asian stereotypes. It’s perhaps an interesting reflection of writer Cannon’s own age that the touchstone of Becca and Jesse’s relationship is the 1980s movie Breakfast Club. Personally, I always had a problem with John Hughes films, in particular Sixteen Candles, with its breathtakingly offensive Long Duk Dong character. Perhaps it’s also a reflection of Cannon’s age and generation that she resorts to not one but two psycho Asian females as sources of purported humor.
At least Lilly has a personality, homicidal though it may be. Becca’s roommate Jinhee Joung is an antisocial weirdo who will only talk or smile to her fellow Asians and refers to Becca as “the white girl.” I’m pretty sure this is meant to be funny. The hostile Jinhee appears again and again, an ice bitch every time, as though in the hope the gag will improve with repetition, but being a antisocial weirdo Korean woman myself, I not only failed to get the joke, I was sickened and offended. What can I say? Like all Asians I’m completely humor-challenged.
So there it is. Like a very busy a capella arrangement that’s not only a mash-up but a medley, not only harmonized up the wazoo but also beat-boxed and rapped and broken down, Pitch Perfectthrows it all in there: gross-out gags, body issues, political incorrectness (especially in hilariously over-the-top cameos by John Michael Higgins and producer Elizabeth Banks as misogynous and outspoken tournament commentators), lesbian over- and undertones (almost as much as there is homoeroticism in your standard bromance), and as many steamy/creamy vagina references as there are usually dick jokes in a movie of this ilk. All this and Ace of Base too. It may not be pitch perfect, but it’s got a beat you can definitely dance to.