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Monday, January 28, 2013

Movies My Sister Made Me Watch: Pitch Perfect

Unexpectedly Quirky But Also Frustratingly Formulaic

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 5, 2012 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Comedy, Music, Romance
Running Time: 112 minutes
Director: Jason Moore
Writers: Kay Cannon (screenplay), Mickey Rapkin (book)
Cast: Anna Kendrick, Skylar Astin, Ben Platt, Brittany Snow, 
Anna Camp, Rebel Wilson, Alexis Knapp, Ester Dean, 
Hana Mae Lee, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins, 
Christopher Mintz-Plasse

It was with great reluctance that I sat down to watch "Pitch Perfect" with my oldest sister and youngest niece. The things we do for the ones we love!

The film is about two competing a cappella singing groups from the same college. They are the all-male "Treblemakers" (great name) and the female "Barden Bellas." I am generally not a fan of movies with a heavy musical element. Unless it involves Dolly Parton or Queen Latifah (preferably in the same movie), or Eddie Murphy or Little Orphan Annie (hopefully not in the same movie), count me out.

The opening scene did not bode well for the film's overall chances. In the middle of a competition, the attractive leader of the Bellas spews out a long, violent rainstorm of projectile vomit. I groaned and hoped the next two hours wouldn't be equally as repellent.

It wasn't, but maybe it should have been. Ironically, the movie works best when it's at its oddest.

In an early scene, incoming college freshman Beca (Anna Kendrick) tries to sign up for the DJ club – but its members aren't disc jockeys. The joke is horrible and inappropriate – and it garnered one of the longest, loudest laughs of the entire movie.

It gets even weirder. After the previous year's regurgitating-related mishap, the Bellas have fallen from grace. As the only two members left, puke-prone Aubrey (Anna Camp) and her sidekick Chloe (Brittany Snow) are desperate to attract new blood. They approach Beca, who rudely refuses their invitation. Shortly thereafter, Chloe overhears Beca singing in the shower – and walks right in. Both women are naked, but the scene is far too bizarre to be sexually titillating. (The tame PG-13 rating probably helps – or hurts, depending on your perspective – because not much is actually shown.)

If that wasn't enough, we're also introduced to Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson, "Bridesmaids"), who calls herself that so people don't have to do it behind her back. She makes the most of every moment she has, blurting out bizarre, blunt observations whenever she can.

In the midst of all this madness, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin from "Superbad") shows up randomly for a couple of scenes.

Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins are also solid gold as bickering commentators who cover the competitions.

Of the Bellas, Aubrey (which used to be a man's name) is forever going over absurd rules while Chloe makes ridiculous melodramatic speeches. Camp and Snow are both pitch perfect (pardon the pun) in these over-the-top roles.

The main character of Beca is played superbly by Anna Kendrick. She stuck out like a sore thumb in "End of Watch" by portraying a lily-white nice girl. It wasn't believable. Here, she has an edge, and it works beautifully. It's a wonderful, radiant performance.

Her co-worker and possible crush, Jesse (Skylar Astin), is passionate about movie soundtracks. There's a great scene where he excitedly recounts his favorites – with "The Breakfast Club" topping his list – while Beca listens out of polite boredom. She eventually admits that she doesn't really like movies because she loses interest after a few minutes. (Believe it or not, there are people like that in real life – and they're still quite lovely despite this shortcoming.)

Not every character is a success though. There's a near-mute Asian with a purposely contorted face, Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), who isn't even remotely amusing. That isn't a criticism of the actress; even Meryl Streep wouldn't have been able to make this lame sight gag work. Still, as strange and off-putting as the visual effect is, you can't say it isn't memorable.

But just when you think "Pitch Perfect" is going to ratchet up the insanity even more, it disappointingly begins to play it safe.  

The overall plot structure has been lifted from countless other films. The competition aspect, in particular, is completely predictable. (To use one example, the 2012 Queen Latifah/Dolly Parton film "Joyful Noise" follows the exact same pattern.)  There's also a romance subplot, and that too progresses exactly the way you'd expect.

To be fair, it's probably inevitable for this type of movie to rehash certain well-worn formulas. Still, those familiar elements feel even more flat and stale than usual when contrasted against such wacky, inventive characters.

Throughout the film, Bellas leader Aubrey constantly locks horns with Beca over the direction of the group. Aubrey wants to remain conservative on stage, but Beca disagrees and thinks they need to take chances. The movie itself has the exact same issue. "Pitch Perfect" is good, (not-so-) clean fun, but it doesn't go far enough.

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