Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Fun, sharp "Pitch Perfect" makes crowd-pleasing music


Pitch Perfect (2012)
112 min., rated PG-13.

Who knew a cappella was still a thing or even cool? Perhaps "Pitch Perfect" can thank TV's wildly popular "Glee" for turning dorky singing clubs into a hip celebration of diversity, acceptance, and record label-ready talent, but the film has a surprisingly broader appeal that even non-'Gleeks' can take pleasure in. Consistently giddy and flat-out fun, this underdog romp does for collegiate a cappella choirs what "Bring It On" did for cheerleading and does it harmoniously with pep, charm, snark, and zing, not to mention an irresistible genre mishmash of '80s, '90s, and today's jams. With buoyant direction, first-timer Jason Moore (Broadway's "Avenue Q") makes his feature debut, along with writer Kay Cannon (TV's "30 Rock"), whose snappy, quotable script is based on the 2009 nonfiction book by Mickey Rapkin. It looks like it was a lot of fun to make because it sure is a lot of fun to watch.

Stripped of her usual type-A personality types, the effortlessly appealing Anna Kendrick plays the peevish, too-cool Beca, an arriving freshman at Barden University who would rather mix beats and mash-ups on her laptop than be social. She gets a free ride from her father, a campus professor, but aspires to run off to L.A. and pay her dues as an aspiring DJ. Then she meets the Barden Bellas, an a cappella group of young ladies dressed like flight attendants and, after initial hesitation, ends up being persuaded by co-leader Chloe (a redheaded Brittany Snow) to join. Following an audition of Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" and Greek Life-like initiations, Beca becomes one of seven other misfits, who must follow every rule made by their controlling, uptight leader Aubrey (Anna Camp). Aubrey is the reason the Bellas were humiliated at the National Finals last year when she vomited on stage (and in the first few rows) at the Lincoln Center. The girls are up against their warbling all-male rivals, the Treblemakers, and if Aubrey keeps strictly adhering to arrangements of safe, outdated songs (get ready to hear Ace of Base's "The Sign" on a loop), do the Bellas even stand a chance? Will the progressive-minded Beca get through to Aubrey to take risks and mix up their playlist?

Ever since Anna Kendrick was noticed in giving more spark to a supporting role in the first "Twilight" than it deserved, she has owned every supporting role that's come her way. Here, it's a joy to see her front and center, especially since she hasn't sung in a film since her feature debut, 2003's "Camp." Pierced, tatted, and sporting black nail polish, Kendrick's alternative Beca perfectly offsets the innocuous chasity of the ultra-perky Camp's Aubrey with an acerbic but likable edge. Supporting her is an impressive supporting cast of fresh faces and established actors, each of them providing the film with plenty of loopy comic bits and ridiculously funny non sequiturs. If "Bridesmaids," "What to Expect When You're Expecting," and "Bachelorette" weren't proof enough, Rebel Wilson is invaluable comedic TNT. As the brash, self-named "Fat Amy," she's hilarious, hijacking every scene with her incredible timing, brazen lack of filter, and confident let's-party! body language. Other standouts: a delightfully weird Hana Mae Lee, as the wide-eyed, mousy Lilly, whose quietly outrageous mutterings earn a laugh every time ("I set fires to feel joy"); Alexis Knapp, as the proudly chesty sexpot; R&B singer Ester Dean, who showcases killer pipes as a handsy possible lesbian; and Jack Black-ish comedian Adam DeVine, who's amusingly obnoxious as the Treblemakers' douchebag leader Bumper. "Spring Awakening's" Skylar Astin is also a charmer as Jesse, a new Treblemaker that flirts with Beca at their radio-station internship. Even if fraternizing with the enemy could cost Beca automatic expulsion from the Bellas, he introduces her to John Hughes' "The Breakfast Club," so you know the Simple Minds' 1985 time-capsule "Don't You (Forget About Me)" will make the soundtrack before the credits roll.

And Christopher Guest needs to make another mockumentary soon because John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks (also a producer on the film) are a priceless hoot of spontaneity as the competitions' color commentators, evoking Guest's "Best in Show." Oh, and the musical performances—they're all toe tappers. During a "Riff-off," where the guy and girl groups face off with impromptu performances of common-themed songs, the selections range from Rihanna's "S&M," to Salt-N-Pepa's "Let's Talk About Sex," Daoud Heidami's "Feels Like The First Time," and finally, Blackstreet's "No Diggity." Beca also leads the Bellas in a mash-up of Bruno Mars' "Just the Way You Are" and Nelly's "Just a Dream." Contemporary pop/hip-hop lovers need not worry that the questionable but undeniably catchy Miley Cyrus' "Party In The USA" and Flo Rida's "Right Around" are packed in as well. 

"Pitch Perfect" is proof that sometimes it's not what you do but how you do it. The story is protracted at 112 minutes and as predictable as they come, with obligatory father-daughter tension and romantic conflict both being resolved in the nick of time, but the energy is infectious and rarely falls into a lull. And some characters are so estranged from reality, but they're endearingly odd and in accord with the overall tone that it hardly matters. Also, the comedy is so cheeky and constantly sharp that the film didn't really need two projectile vomit gags. Even so, there's a surprise the second time someone blows chunks. Not to oversell the thing, but "Pitch Perfect" is more than just another throwaway crowd-pleaser. It's a breezy, silly, but dexterous, blast that'sdare I say?"a ca-perfect" for the fall season before the big, serious Oscar bait comes rolling in and ensures hope in anyone who wails that they don't make funny movies like they used to. It'll be hard to resist standing up and cheering.

Grade: B +

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