Saturday, October 13, 2012

Review: "Pitch Perfect"

Director: Jason Moore
Runtime: 112 minutes

In the wake of Glee, musicals are something of a commodity again. Whether it's further exploits on the small screen (NBC's Smash), or the upcoming Les Miserables, we've entered a brief period where singing on screen is actually considered acceptable. Yet Pitch Perfect, unlike the above-mentioned properties, had one obstacle: Glee fatigue. It's one thing to have people singing. It's another to have a band of misfits singing covers of popular music. That's Glee's territory, the stuff that has made it an object of adoration and ridicule (sometimes at the same time). Yet thanks to a lively and funny script from 30Rock writer Kay Cannon, and dynamic work from its ensemble, Pitch Perfect hits the sweet spot, despite being an entry in a soon-to-be overcrowded field. 

Rather than a wide-eyed Broadway hopeful, Pitch Perfect's protagonist is Beca, an aspiring music producer entering her freshman year at Barden University. While perusing the campus org booths, she's confronted by Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp), the leaders of the Bellas, one of Barden's four a cappella groups. Beca refuses, though of course she eventually winds up in the group. Filling out the Bellas' roster are a gaggle of oddballs, including Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), and the nearly silent Lily (Hana Mae Lee, an absolute scene stealer). With the Bellas' reputation in trouble (the film opens with a disastrous outing at the a cappella nationals competition), Chloe and Aubrey must turn Beca and the other new recruits into a team that can claim victory. Beca also struggles with her possible feelings for Jesse (Skylar Astin), a member of the dominant (and all-male) a cappella group at Barden.

In terms of plot, Pitch Perfect packs no genuine surprises. With many similar movies, this would result in an awkwardly-paced attempt to breathe life into tired story arcs. Yet somehow, Jason Moore's treatment of Cannon's script is surprisingly nimble. Though it runs for nearly two hours, Pitch Perfect utilizes its characters (even the one-note ones) so well that there's never a moment for tedium to take over. Cannon may be best known for her work on a network sitcom, but her writing here takes her 30Rock experience and applies it smoothly to the world of feature films. You'll likely never doubt the story's outcome, but Cannon makes the journey such a fun (and consistently funny) journey that it hardly matters.

Cannon is also lucky that her words are in the hands of such a delightful ensemble. Kendrick makes an appealing lone wolf, and neither the script nor the actress try too hard to make Beca an outsider. Though certain characters are used for repeated jokes, they are given just enough to prevent them from feeling like blunt comedic tools. Wilson, who broke out as Kristen Wiig's oblivious room mate in Bridesmaids, furthers her status as a master of hilarious deadpan. Yet Wilson isn't the only one earning laughs. Lee's Lily, a severe low talker, is used effectively, and the script never wears out her welcome. In addition to the low talking, Lee also gets to deliver a handful of hysterical (and comically dark) non-sequiturs that showcase the best of Cannon's 30Rock roots. As for Snow and Camp, they aren't afforded as much comedic material, but the pair capture their roles perfectly (Camp in particular).

So even though Pitch Perfect succumbs to the temptation to include a gross-out joke (make that one and a half), 95% of it is good, plain, silly fun. Cannon and the cast also manage to never let the comedic energy dip in the last act, despite going through the motions of the "dramatic incident breaks up the group" trope. Pitch Perfect may not register further than skin-deep, but it provides enough nice character interactions and big laughs to stand out. If you've ever been curious about Glee but didn't want to give in to something so hopelessly sincere, Pitch Perfect will allow you to have your musically themed cake and eat it too.

Grade: B

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