A lot more fun than I expected it to be, the minor musical comedy Pitch Perfect opens wide this week after debuting locally on a single screen last week.
Based on Mickey Rapkin's nonfiction book about college a cappella singing, the film is set at fictional Barden University and tracks the rivalry between two campus groups: The national champion, all-male Treble Makers are an arrogant, flamboyant bunch who specialize in high-energy takes on contemporary hits from the likes of Rihanna and B.O.B. The perpetual also-ran, all-female Bellas are a more traditional group, performing disco-era chestnut "Turn the Beat Around" in flight-attendant get-up.
As a new school year opens, the Bellas try to reinvent themselves with a familiarly ragtag group of freshman recruits. These include the boisterous Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), who explains her self-given nickname thusly: "Yeah, so bitches like you don't do it behind my back." A more crucial new Bella ends up being the reluctant aspiring DJ Beca (Anna Kendrick), whose shoulder tattoo, piercings, and dark eye shadow suggest someone "a little too alternative" for the Bella norm.
Pitch Perfect borrows liberally from a few better films. Much of the plotting feels reconfigured from the cheerleader comedy Bring It On. Producer Elizabeth Banks and Christopher Guest regular John Michael Higgins play television commentators who echo — but don't come close to equalling — Fred Willard's memorable turn in Guest's Best in Show. And Pitch Perfect relies too much on unnecessary gross-out gags it probably thinks are reminiscent of Bridesmaids. It filters all these elements through a sunny amateur-singer aesthetic seemingly derived more from the Glee/American Idol/The Voice nexus than the reality of college a cappella groups.
But the singing is fun, especially when, um, pitched at a lower key. The best scene in the film is a silly "riff off" between singing groups inside an empty outdoor campus pool, where groups sing at each other based on randomly selected topics ("Ladies of the '80s" and "Sex"). This scene affirms Beca's place with the Bellas and affirms the undeniable truth that we all love "No Diggity."
Pitch Perfect also rises above its station via strong lead performances from Kendrick — in her first real lead role after such strong supporting turns in Up in the Air and 50/50 — and Skylar Astin, as Beca's Treble Maker analogue Jesse.
Beca and Jesse's college sorta-romance might seem quaint in this alleged "hook up" era, but I'd argue it feels true to life — two socially awkward types who suffer a break-up before ever going out and don't realize they're a couple until well after they are.