Anna Kendrick leads an appealing cast in this hilariously silly saga of intensely competitive undergrad a cappella singing groups
Whether you’re a card-carrying Gleek or you think Fox’s weekly high-school musical long ago jumped the shark (with jazz hands), you may find yourself falling under the spell of “Pitch Perfect,” an unassuming little comedy with enough cleverness, energy and sheer charm to break out among the crowded slate of fall films.
Even if its underdogs-go-for-the-title storyline doesn’t break much new ground, the very appealing cast (led by ingénue superstar Anna Kendrick) and an overall sense of buoyant silliness advances it to the top of the class.
You might have crossed the quad to get away from actual a cappella groups in real life, but “Pitch Perfect” turns these singers into people in whose company you’ll happily spend an hour or two.
Beca (Kendrick) is a new freshman at Barden University, but not by choice — the aspiring DJ wants to move to Los Angeles to become a record producer, but her estranged father (John Benjamin Hickey), a professor at Barden, insists that she go to college first.
Eventually, they make a deal that he’ll bankroll her move to L.A. if she gives a whole year to school, including joining an extracurricular activity and making some friends.
Soon, she’s roped into joining the Bellas, an all-girl a cappella group that’s hit the skids after soloist Aubrey (Anna Camp) violently vomited on the first several rows at the previous year's Nationals during a performance of Ace of Base’s “I Saw the Sign.”
Beca becomes one of several odd ducks to join the group, alongside the brash Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson of “Bridesmaids”), who gave herself the name “so twig bitches like you wouldn’t call me that behind my back,” and the painfully shy Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), whose barely-audible utterances provide some of the film’s most outrageous laughs.
Will mashup-minded Beca convince Aubrey to shake up the Bellas’ playlist? Will the group have a chance at Nationals against their obnoxious all-male rivals, the Treble Makers? And will the rules forbidding fraternization between the choruses stymie Beca’s budding flirtation with Jesse (Skylar Astin, “Hamlet 2”)?
Surprises are not abundant in the screenplay by Kay Cannon (adapting Mickey Rapkin’s novel), but the laughs keep coming from all directions — “Pitch Perfect” offers a wonderful ensemble of loony supporting bits, from Fat Amy’s non-sequitur asides to the ridiculous preening of Treble Makers star soloist Bumper (Adam DeVine) to the unabashed nerdiness of Jesse’s roommate Benji (Ben Platt), an amateur magician, “Star Wars” geek and starry-eyed Treble Makers super-fan.
Also making this familiar plot worth navigating are the musical selections, which put pop and hip-hop favorites through the a cappella meat grinder and turn them into something dazzlingly different. (First-time director Jason Moore directed Broadway’s “Avenue Q.”)
Even the selections that seem like insane choices are delivered with such conviction that their inherent bad taste makes them seem delightful.
Kendrick and Astin generate real sparks, and the film wisely presents real roadblocks to their relationships as well as a supremely satisfying Big Gesture in the final reel. Elizabeth Banks (one of the film’s executive producers) and John Michael Higgins add to the laughs as former singers whose color commentary on the competitions make them the movie’s de facto Greek chorus. Both actors are capable of saying the most outrageous things without ever dropping the TV talking-head tone of voice.
“Pitch Perfect” is the back-to-school version of a summer comedy, but even if you’re no longer flocking to the theater just to get some air-conditioning, you’ll enjoy the film’s breezy sensibility.