In some movies, bad taste is a virtue. It’s a sign that the filmmakers are as bored with the clichés of their genre as we are.
Pitch Perfect opens with a sequence set at a national college a cappella competition at Lincoln Center, where a chirpy, all-female group called the Barden Bellas does an act that sums up everything that people who don’t like a cappella don’t like about a cappella. Until, that is, principal vocalist Aubrey (Anna Camp) finds herself indisposed. She doesn’t puke onstage in a genteel, ladylike or even realistic way — oh, no. She spews a hideous fountain of vomit reminiscent of the tall-tale sequence in Stand by Me.
If your reaction to that scene is “What hath Bridesmaids wrought on chick flicks?” then Pitch Perfect may not be for you. Pushing the raunch limits of a PG-13 rating, the film takes a gleefully irreverent attitude toward everything except John Hughes movies. That includes its own plot, which was lifted straight from the sleepover favorite Bring It On. It’s still a girls-night-out flick, and moviegoers who shun song-and-dance sequences and ’80s pop hits should stay away. But Pitch Perfect is refreshingly heavy on goofing and light on schmaltz.
Anna Kendrick plays Beca, a Barden College freshman itching to run off to LA and start her career mixing “sick beats” as a DJ. Instead, unlikely circumstances conspire to compel her to try out for the Bellas, whose warbling she disdains. Meanwhile, weak-stomached Aubrey is struggling to rebuild the Bellas after last year’s trouncing by the college’s all-male group, the Treble Makers — a coterie of amusingly smug glee-club nerds who fancy themselves rock stars. The Bellas need Beca’s strong voice, but her pleas to spice up their routines with “something written in this century” evoke many eye-rolls.
Anyone who’s ever seen a comedy about an outsider shaking up a culty, tradition-bound group knows exactly where this is going. But writer Kay Cannon (“30 Rock”) and first-time feature director Jason Moore distract us from the tired plot beats with all manner of silliness, most of it provided by supporting characters.
Kendrick is an Oscar-nominated actress, not to mention the only intentionally funny element in the Twilight movies. But here, stuck in the one-note role of a self-styled hipster who voices all the snarky comments viewers may be thinking about a cappella, she quickly becomes tiresome.
The standout role belongs instead to Rebel Wilson, as a belter who introduces herself to the Bellas as Fat Amy, “so twiggy bitches like you can’t call me that behind my back.” She delivers such salvos in a breathy, deadpan whisper — a shtick that hasn’t changed since her turn in Bridesmaids, but still works for now. It may be getting tired by the time Wilson and Melissa McCarthy team up in the inevitable buddy comedy about large-and-proud ladies navigating a size-2 world.
Between Fat Amy and other colorful characters hogging the Bellas’ practice sessions, and performances featuring Beca’s energetic and sassy (if far from revolutionary) pop mash-ups, Pitch Perfect doesn’t have many dull spots. Most of those involve Beca’s budding romance with a Treble Maker (Skylar Astin) who introduces her to The Breakfast Club.
Who would have thought, in 1985, that Hughes’ taking-itself-way-too-seriously teen-angst flick would become a touchstone for the youth of the 21st century? Luckily, Pitch Perfect owes more to the scattershot, whatever-it-takes comic style of the Hughes who wrote Sixteen Candles and National Lampoon’s Vacation. As movies about fresh-scrubbed young people harmonizing go, it’s surprisingly fun.
* Running time: 112 min.
* Rated: PG-13