Whenever a film critic writes that a movie “doesn’t know what it wants to be,” the oft-used line is invariably the thesis of an overwhelmingly negative review. The reason for this is obvious: If a filmmaker’s intentions are unclear, then their work can’t adequately convey a message — the fundamental act of storytelling. But there are exceptions to every rule and this review of “Pitch Perfect” is one of them. The movie has no idea what it wants to be–A straightforward musical? A satire of competitive a cappella performance? A romantic-comedy? An ode to ‘80s teen films?–but to focus on its lack of direction is to miss out on a genuinely good time. “Pitch Perfect” is like a meal made up of a slice of pizza, a burrito, and sides of chow mein and Fruit Loops — the elements might not go together, but they all taste so good that only snobs will care.
Most people are familiar with a capella–the form of group performance in which background singers’ voices substitute for instrumental accompaniment–but very few are aware of the competitive heights to which the pastime is taken, as chronicled by “Pitch Perfect.” (NBC’s reality show “The Sing Off,” a ratings dud, was the only other popular entertainment to focus on this phenomenon.) Apparently, competitive a capella is a pretty big deal at certain colleges, like the film’s fictional Baden University. Two groups dominate Barden: the all-male Treblemakers and the all-female Bellas. Freshman protagonist Beca (Anna Kendrick) begrudgingly joins the latter after her professor father forces her to pick a club to help acclimate to campus life.
Music-driven scenes dominate “Pitch Perfect,” but director Jason Moore doesn’t shoot the movie like a conventional musical at all. Perhaps it would have been ridiculous to gussy up a cappella performances with the hyper-kinetics of a film like “Rock of Ages,” but Moore’s restrained approach represents a jarringly different way to present song and dance onscreen. Clearly reflecting his background in television, the director (with cinematographer Julio Macat) captures the out-of-competition performances in a straightforward, point-and-shoot style and the competition performances in much the same way that an episode of “American Idol” is shot. While this makes for a formally uninteresting film, the stripped-down aesthetic ultimately works because it gives the actors/singers the spotlight — and they are infectious to watch. Before this movie, most viewers would not be caught dead watching an a cappella performance–the style has a reputation for being dated and niche–but the “Pitch Perfect” cast’s renditions of pop standards like Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” prove that the style can be hip and energetic.
Despite the film’s determination to prove that a cappella is worthy of the attention of more than just senior-aged audiences, it repeatedly makes fun of the pastime, obscuring its intentions if successfully entertaining all the while. Two excessively self-important competition announcers played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins would be right at home in a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary of a cappella culture, as would several of The Bellas’ competitors — primarily the Treblemakers, who take their craft far too seriously. Make no mistake about it: this material is funny–actor Adam DeVine (Comedy Central’s “Workaholics”) is especially amusing as the egomaniacal Treblemakers frontman Bumper–and more in line with what one might expect of a film about this subject. But it nonetheless makes “Pitch Perfect” a walking contradiction; the viewer is expected to see the cast as alternately talented for their unique spins on hit songs and stupid for pursuing such a ‘low’ art.
There’s also straightforward comedy that feels as though it was shoehorned into the movie solely to accommodate the considerable talents of up-and-comer Rebel Wilson, who steals even more scenes here than she did in last year’s “Bridesmaids.” Wilson’s Fat Amy–she adds the “Fat” prefix so that “twig bitches don’t do it behind my back”–is a brilliant marriage of the actress’ physical chops and screenwriter Kay Cannon’s spry zingers. The character really doesn’t belong in “Pitch Perfect”–the filmmakers don’t even attempt to explain how she goes from being a distractingly ill-prepared outlier of The Bellas at first to a seamless background performer by the Lincoln Center-set finale–but Wilson is so funny that it’s hard to critique her inclusion. As with everything in this joyful mess of a movie, Fat Amy simply has to be appreciated on her own terms.
Like the Wilson comedy bits, the ‘80s-esque coming-of-age subplots involving Beca’s love interest (Skylar Astin) and out-of-touch father (John Benjamin Hickey) feel disconnected from the musical segments–a single John Hughes reference loosely ties them to the final performance–but work on their own. In fact, they give lead Kendrick–a good actress with a consistently charming screen presence–time to shine, which is important because Wilson and Brittany Snow consistently overshadow her in intra-Bellas scenes. Audiences have seen both subplots before and they are utterly predictable, but Kendrick is sympathetic and human enough to overcome their prefab nature.
It’s worth noting, however, that the above coming-of-age elements are virtually the only conventional things about “Pitch Perfect,” which proves to be startlingly original as far as mass-appeal movies go. For as discombobulated as director Moore’s presentation often is, his willingness to subvert genre tradition is enormous. In addition to the aforementioned unorthodox nature of the musical sequence photography, Moore never dwells on The Bellas’ rehearsals–there are very few practice montages–and the climactic final competition isn’t milked for artificial tension. Moore realizes that audiences could care less about these clichés and that it’s more fun for them when the cast is great at performing from the get-go, no matter how unbelievable such expertise may be. In fact, one could argue that Moore explicitly sought out to make a movie that “doesn’t know what it wants to be,” because it’s too busy having fun to worry about such a formality.