Pitch Perfect (2012) is all about how tired, well-worn ideas will always lose to fresh, new ones, which is ironic considering there’s hardly an original thought in the whole movie. It’s not that I’ve seen this movie before; it’s that I’ve seen it many times before and most times done better. Though I value it, I don’t demand originality from the movies I see (if I did, I’d enjoy myself, at most, a dozen times a year), but if you’re going to hit the same notes, do it once more with feeling.
Get this, a group of misfits has to come together to beat the odds and achieve their goals, learning a little something about teamwork along the way. What’s that? You’ve seen a movie before? Oh, then you may be familiar with the plot of this one. I’m going to lay out the story, and I want you to identify all the mind-numbing clichés that you’d rather schedule consecutive dental appointments than see in another movie. This is a rags–to–pitches story of a collegiate a cappella group trying to win the prestigious collegiate a cappella group crown at the national finals. Our heroine is an anti-social girl, Beca (Anna Kendrick), who doesn’t like anybody because her parents got divorced (sassy, loner central figure with a lot to learn about friendship, love and the real world, bing!), and all she wants to do is move to LA and become a music producer, a wish her father will grant if she tries a college club for one year (ridiculous parental bargaining, bing!).
That club is the Barden Bellas, a singing group on the edge of greatness until their leader, the priggish Aubrey (Anna Camp), lost her lunch on stage at last year’s finals. Well, she didn’t lose her lunch, as the zany commentators say (zany commentators at an event that would never, ever be televised, bing!), because it’s easily found spilled all over the front of the stage and the judges. Now a campus joke, the once proud Bellas must scrounge for any available talent to stay relevant (the fictional Barden University supports four a cappella groups including the arrogant national champion Treblemakers, a boys’ group the Bellas are to stay away from, taking an initiation oath promising to do so).
So they hold an audition (audition montage, bing!) and grab a motley crew of social misfits and undesirables who are actually preternaturally beautiful and talented (giving the shallow audience a patronizing lesson about untraditional beauty, bing!). They include a slutty one (bing!), a quiet and shy one (bing!), Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), who calls herself that so “twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back,” and of course our alternative loner Beca, who is an independent thinker because she has dark finger nails and multiple earrings. The stuck-up Aubrey and her lieutenant Chloe (Brittany Snow) won’t deviate from the Bellas’ usual, staid routine because “it’s tradition,” a tradition that includes not winning the championship, but no one seems to make that connection, except Beca, whose hobby is making musical mash-ups on her computer and wants to institute some fresh and interesting arrangements into the Bellas’ repertoire. Aubrey promptly blocks that, though everyone, even Chloe, thinks the new sizzle will benefit the group (authority figures maddeningly blind to the obvious solution, bing!).
As the Bellas face internal strife, Beca begins falling for Jesse (Skylar Astin) who, are you sitting down for this one?, is a Treblemaker (invented practical reason for the movie’s romance not to work, bing!), until she pushes him away because of her fierce independence and allergies to happiness (invented emotional reason for the movie’s romance not to work, bing!). All the narrative threads wind up at the finals where Beca has a chance to sing her way to personal absolution (public test of skill standing in as a private test of character, bing!). I left a few out, but that’s the gist of them.
The movie provides a few nice laughs but they are generated exclusively by the performers; when relied on to provide them on their own, the script and the story flounder. Wilson is the standout, though she’s more poorly served than she was in Bridesmaids (2011) and Bachelorette (2012), which knew how to use her without making her the butt of the joke. But she has enough personal magnetism to give a breath of fresh air to the stupifyingly by-the-numbers structure. Kendrick is playing against her strength as the gruff rebel; she’s better as the sweet, enthusiastic prep, but she’s good enough to keep us interested as the audience conduit.
Pitch Perfect’s problem isn’t just its well-worn story; it’s the uninteresting way it tells it. A good story can be told ad infinitum, and Hollywood returns to the underdog tale time and again precisely because it’s so durable, but when it’s told poorly, it feels interminable. It’s like the least interesting person at the party telling a favorite anecdote; he’s rushing over all the important parts but lingering on the unnecessary stuff, and you just want to throttle him and demand that he either wrap it up or let someone else tell it. Because Pitch Perfect doesn’t create compelling characters with any depth or set up a situation with any tension, we slog down an inevitable road with only musical numbers that aren’t bouncy and fun enough to make up for the fact that we don’t care about them.
A comedy isn’t as reliant on characterization and narrative structure (though they help, they always help) but when a movie forgoes them completely it had better be funnier than Pitch Perfect manages to be. Using “aca,” as in “a cappella” as a prefix is mildly amusing the first few times (“We’re going to have aca–children,” “Aca–believe it!”), but once we’re in the high teens some of the zip has worn off. And for some of us the sheen wears off a lot earlier.