When it's done right, there's nothing so miraculous as the sound of human voices blending into a creamy swirl of color, with neither the help nor the distraction of musical accompaniment. Pitch Perfect banks on that magic — the purely human wizardry of a cappella singing — though it also attempts to be several other things: a mild gross-out comedy, a paean to the awkward early stages of new love, a Mean Girls-style riff on campus hierarchies. That may be too much for one modest comedy to carry, but one thing's for sure: Pitch Perfect doesn't skimp on the singing.
Anna Kendrick stars as Beca, a newly matriculated student at fictional Barden University. Beca is supposedly a misfit — we're clued in by her multiple ear piercings, her ambition to be a DJ or a record producer, and her smattering of tattoos — and she's still smarting over her parents' divorce, which means she's prickly toward her professor dad (John Benjamin Hickey) and her fellow students alike.
But in addition to having a killer knack for mixing beats, Beca can sing beautifully. And somehow, despite her initial lack of enthusiasm, she's recruited to try out for one of the school's singing groups, the Barden Bellas, a prissy bunch of girls who are actually ruthless warriors when it comes to a cappella singing competitions.
As it turns out, a fellow freshman who has already expressed an interest in Beca, Skylar Astin's Jesse, lands a spot in a rival singing group, The Treblemakers, just as Beca is accepted as a Bella. And while the Bellas used to be very picky about the body shape and size of its members, they have somehow decided to admit some fuller-figured gals into their ranks: Enter Rebel Wilson as Fat Amy, who has decided to add that descriptive adjective to her name before her skinnier, snobbier fellow students do it for her.
To its credit, Pitch Perfect doesn't try to be a big-screen version of Glee. It has its own distinctive, self-assured vibe, though there are places where the script, adapted by Kay Cannon from Mickey Rapkin's 2008 nonfiction book, muddles some plot points that should be significant. (It's not clear, for example, why the Bellas decide to make room for shapelier singers; they'd lost an earlier singing competition owing to a freak projectile-vomiting incident, not because they'd favored skinny, untalented performers.) And even in a light comedy, Kendrick may not be the most compelling lead performer: Sometimes she's the wrong combination of chirpy and sharp — a chipmunk with a bad attitude.
And yet Pitch Perfect offers some unapologetically pleasing moments, including a crisply edited audition scene that owes nothing — thank God — to the protracted sadism of reality TV singing shows. It moves at a clip, a sprightly relay race between a dozen or so mellifluous performers. (The movie's director is Jason Moore, who, in addition to having episodes of Everwood and Dawson's Creek under his belt, earned a Tony Award nomination in 2004 for directing Avenue Q.)
The script features some killer lines, most of them slung by Wilson, who has a great deal of appealing swagger: At one point she approaches two slouching nerds wearing hoodies and asks outright: "What are you two talking about? Dressing for comfort?"
And then there's the singing, which, at its best, comes off as glorious and casual even if it's really the result of strict vocal discipline. One of the finest sequences is a "riff-off" between the boys and the girls, a West Side Story-style showdown that plays out with shards of songs instead of switchblades. The boys taunt the girls with a version of Toni Basil's ebullient cute-guy anthem "Mickey"; the girls rejoinder with a few flirty-cool lines from "Like a Virgin." The sequence is ridiculous and buoyant, a wonderful example of what can happen when a movie momentarily forgets all the things — snarky, irreverent, of-the-moment — it's desperately trying to be. (Recommended)