When Bridesmaids became a box office megahit, Hollywood did what it always tries to do—make it happen again. Where was the next Bridesmaids? Where was that rich mix of self-deprecating humor and light romance from a female perspective? Maybe the answer would come with a Bridesmaids' star, Rebel Wilson.
Hollywood found the heir apparent in Pitch Perfect. Like Bridesmaids, it tossed an insecure heroine into a ragtag group of women. Mix that with Glee; add campy barf scenes and you have a funny two hours.
Apparently for decades, Ivy League universities have prided themselves on male, a capella, singing groups who wrangled the same level of respect as a sports team. Nowadays the singing competitions include both male and female teams. Journalist Mickey Rabkin spent a year following the male Beelzebubs from Tufts University, female singers Divisi from University of Oregon, and University of Virginia’s Hullabahoos. His book covered the outrageous but funny behavior of the collegiate men and the personal conflicts of the coeds.
The film loosely based on Rabkin’s book follows Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick), a new coed at Barden University where her estranged father (John Benjamin Hickey) is a professor. She has no interest in school, especially after meeting roommate Kimmy Jin (Jinhee Joung) who prefers only to interact with her own ethnic group. Beca wants to make music in Los Angeles. At “join a club” day, she meets desperate members of the formerly perfectionistic female, a capella group, The Bellas, and its two ideal returnees, nicer Chloe (Brittany Snow) and “Type A” Aubrey (Anna Camp). At the prior year’s intercollegiate sing-off, the last group of Bellas was torn apart by a funny but humiliating onstage mishap.
Since Aubrey and Chloe could not recruit any other singing coeds who were flight attendant lookalikes, the returning girls settle for downright strange replacements. After a weird naked shower scene, pretty and fully functional Beca gives in and joins. The returning Bellas find they cannot squeeze recruits into the stylish clothes and suggestive routines of the past. The old routine, sung to Ace of Base's “The Sign,” is heard way too often through the film.
Jesse (Skylar Astin), from a rival male, a capella group The Treblemakers, tries to romance Beca while he comforts his talented, childlike, and rejected roommate Benji (Ben Platt). Beca, tired of performing suggestive choreography to outdated music, tries to breathe new life into dull routines. Using fresher tunes, clever mash ups, and Fat Amy's (Wilson) unique improvisations, the group creates engaging musical scenes (the best: a late night sing off). Wilson blasts through any potentially boring scene, even making pumping gasoline funny.
The film is not formulaic, not a competition film like Bring it On, and not a lot like Glee. The humor is about unpredictable, irrational, about talented college kids trying to fathom life on their own. The characters allow Kendrick’s Beca to lead them back from the brink to the competition stage. Add to that bizarre double entendre commentary from two show announcers led by Elizabeth Banks. Though “odd” was clearly what the creators envisioned, the Asian characters are confusing: a roommate who only speaks to other Asians? Or Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) who whispers and is never audible, yet is a singer? Both characters were misfires.
This past spring, I sat in a test audience inside the Sherman Oaks Galleria’s ArcLight Theatre, a fitting film for the home of Moon Zappa’s “Valley Girls.” The other lab rats howled at each unexpected laugh and couldn’t wait to complete test audience comment cards, giggling and pointing to friends as they wrote clever opinions. A month later I brought my kids to a second test showing. Someone said the Galleria audience rated the film higher than Bridesmaids. Did the producers hit the mother lode?
Based on those tests, opening day was set for October 5 but the studio had a limited run a week earlier to engender word of mouth publicity. The buzz worked. The “week to week drop” for the first several weeks of release was quite small. Though this film never reached #1 in the box office, it maintained a top eleven spot until Thanksgiving and made $65 million at the box office prior to its Christmastime DVD release.
Kay Cannon, a veteran writer on 30 Rock, penned the script from the book and Jason Moore, a veteran of teen dramas like Dawson’s Creek and Everwood, directed with a $17 million budget. Banks, who worked with Cannon on 30 Rock, produced and joined the cast of Pitch Perfect as Gail, the competition announcer. Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge played the part of Barden University.
Most critics recommend Pitch Perfect. The naysayers had bizarre rationale for disliking it and that seemed fitting for this oddball, hilarious movie. Two critics seemed angry the film was a farce instead of a documentary. They longed for an accurate representation of the university a capella movement. Could these writers be former college singers themselves? Did the movie hurt their “a capella or die!” feelings? Another journalist was unhappy with Anna Kendrick, claiming she was dour and too unhappy as a protagonist. Other writers spent their word count complaining about two minor characters, the off color contest announcers (John Michael Higgins and Banks) claiming Pitch Perfect ripped off Fred Willard in Best of Show. Rip off or homage? You be the judge.
If you love pop music, barf jokes, and college culture, Pitch Perfect is a video you should buy instead of rent. Right now, Target rates it five stars and sells it for $19.99 ($24.99 for Blu-ray) and Blockbuster rents it for $2.99. There is hope! Prices always come down after a few months.
Rating: PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes.
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