Critic David Edelstein reviews a film that may sound a lot like a campus-bound version of Glee, but has more to it than that label might suggest.
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Actress Anna Kendrick was nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role in "Up in the Air." Now she stars in the film musical, "Pitch Perfect," in which she plays a college freshman who reluctantly joins the school's illustrious all-female a cappella group. Director Jason Moore is best known for his work on the satirical Broadway musical, "Avenue Q." Film critic David Edelstein has this review of "Pitch Perfect."
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: I wasn't looking forward - no, in truth, I was dreading the a cappella college musical comedy "Pitch Perfect." Mostly, I'm suffering from an overdose of "Glee," which has a similar setting, and I also dreaded the music. I hear enough overproduced, auto-tuned, generally vacuous mainstream pop thanks to my two daughters' penchant for New York's Clear Channel flagship station, Z100.
"Pitch Perfect" features mixes of those pop hits new and old, and the actresses playing college kids are pushing 30. About a minute in, though, I started getting a beautiful buzz. At a regional final competition, an all-male group called the Treblemakers perform "Don't Stop the Music," and director Jason Moore and musical directors Ed Boyer and Deke Sharon get the tone just right.
It's borderline camp, but the harmonies are beautiful. There's love in this parody. Then, an all-female group from the same fictional college, The Bellas, come on doing a mix of Ace of Base's "The Sign" that starts low energy and ends in calamity. Two ill-matched TV commentators do a running play-by-play, a device swiped from Christopher Guest's "Best in Show," but it's a hoot in its own right with Guest regular John Michael Higgins' boorish, misogynistic remarks met with acid rejoinders by Elizabeth Banks, who coproduced the movie.
We're off and running and dancing and singing before the heroine even enters. She's a freshman, Beca, played by that specialist and ever-prickly, ever-needy character's the ever-delightful Anna Kendrick. Beca wants to produce records instead of wasting time in college, and she's used to working alone, mixing songs on her computer, but she can sing. And she ends up in the once-dominant, now-desperate The Bellas alongside the Australian actress, Rebel Wilson, as, quote, "Fat Amy," which is what Amy calls herself, so that, she explains, people won't do it behind her back. That's a great joke, a layer of humor over a world of hurt.
The Bellas are run by the neurotically, over-controlled Aubrey, played by Anna Camp and her sidekick, Brittany Snow's Chloe, who explains to Aubrey, Beca, Fat Amy and other young women the problem with her voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PITCH PERFECT")
ANNA CAMP: (as Aubrey) I hope you all remember the way you feel right now, so you will never want to feel this way again. Chloe, your voice didn't sound Aguilar-ian at all. Chloe, for serious, what is wrong with you?
BRITTANY SNOW: (as Chloe) I have nodes.
CAMP: (as Aubrey) Oh. Oh, my God.
SNOW: (as Chloe) I found out this morning.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What are nodes?
CAMP: (as Aubrey) Vocal nodules, the rubbing together of your vocal chords at above average rates without proper lubrication. They sit on your windpipe and they crush your veins.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Isn't that painful? Why would you keep performing?
SNOW: (as Chloe) Because I love to sing.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah. It's like when my lady doctor told me not to have sex for six weeks, and I did it, anyway.
REBEL WILSON: (as Amy) You should really listen to your doctor.
SNOW: (as Chloe) The key is early diagnosis. I am living with nodes, but I am a survivor. I just have to pull back, because I am limited, because I have nodes.
CAMP: (as Aubrey) Chloe, this is horrible.
WILSON: (as Amy) Well, at least it's not herpes. I do, I have that, as well.
EDELSTEIN: That dialog is on the campy side, but it also has a core of pathos. "Pitch Perfect" screenwriter Kay Cannon is an improv comedian who writes for "30 Rock" and "The New Girl," and my guess is she's so used to trying to top her colleagues in the writers' room that, left alone, she keeps topping herself. She doesn't go in for convoluted hipster repartee in the vein of "Juno's" Diablo Cody. She pares down jokes to their hilarious essence.
The storyline? It's a bit of fluff about our untraditional heroine Beca's attempt to bring new life to The Bellas' moribund style and repertoire. But this is the sort of comedy where you love the bad guys, like Anna Camp's Aubrey and Adam DeVine as the preening, overgrown infant who leads the Treblemakers.
Director Moore is a Broadway hand who can stage a number without assaulting the audience, and the soundtrack - which includes cast member Ester Dean doing a piece of Rihanna's "S&M," which Dean actually co-wrote - is a bit of heaven.
"Pitch Perfect" isn't perfect. I thought the so-called riff-off, in which the colleges' rival a cappella groups attempt to out-sing one another, should have been longer. But that's a heck of a nice problem for a movie to have. This is the year's most exhilarating pick-me-up.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at FreshAir.npr.org and follow us on Twitter at @NPRFreshAir and on Tumblr at NPRFreshAir.Tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.