* (out of four)
“Pitch Perfect” doesn’t deserve its star, Anna Kendrick. For the second time in two weeks (“End of Watch”) the actress’ charm enlivens the screen, but this time it’s in service of a movie that makes “Katy Perry: Part of Me” look like “Almost Famous.”
To anyone thinking I don’t believe women can be funny, my answer is simple: Of course they can. But “Pitch Perfect” would be a disaster starring women, men or bicycle-riding chickens. (Actually, that I’d like to see.)
Kendrick plays Beca, who's annoyed about her free college tuition to southern Barden University because she'd rather pursue a DJ career in L.A. She joins the Bellas, Barden’s all-female a cappella group who blew a national championship-contending performance when tyrannical Aubrey (Anna Camp) vomited while singing Ace of Base's “The Sign.”
Aubrey’s insists the Bellas perform no recent music, which really gets Beca's goat. She loves remixing songs, doing revolutionary stuff like taking The Proclaimers' “I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)” and turning it into a dance track. Since no one in the music industry has ever done stuff like that.
Aubrey forbids any Bella to date a member of rival a cappella group the Treble Makers. Beca does not totally reject the advances of Jesse (Skylar Astin), who looks like a young Dane Cook and exudes the same unsettling smarminess. He wants to score movies and praises several scores including “Star Wars,” yet he ruthlessly mocks his “Star Wars” fanboy roommate Benji (Ben Platt). Later, an a cappella analyst (John Michael Higgins), smugly signifying writer Kay Cannon's (“30 Rock”) extreme bitterness toward most of the characters, says that an a cappella group that uses sock puppets (sockapella!) proves life doesn't get better for everyone after high school.
The harsh judgment doesn't end there. Adapted from a book by Mickey Rapkin, “Pitch Perfect” features a girl who calls herself Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), owning the word “fat” so others won't mock her for her weight. That’s great, except Cannon never allows the character to be anything more than Fat Amy. “I'm going to finish him like a cheesecake,” Amy says. See, we're supposed to laugh because she's overweight and she loves food. The defining characteristic of Stacie (Alexis Knapp of “Project X”), the bustiest member of the Bellas, is, of course, her sexuality. The thinly veiled sexuality of a member suspected to be a lesbian (Ester Dean), however, repeatedly appears as a punch line, like, “Haha, she hasn't come out to us but we can all totally tell she's gay.” Nerdy Benji, who desperately wants to join the Treble Makers, gets shut out of the group and eventually told he can only participate if he completely suppresses his personality.
“Pitch Perfect” takes place in college, a time when people can be who they want to be and connect with those who share the same passions, but here even when doing something you love you aren't free to be yourself.
Not that “Pitch Perfect” really concerns itself with identity. Characters frequently say things like “aca-awkward” or “aca-politics,” aping the “cheer-tatorship” style of joke writing from “Bring It On” instead of, you know, writing actual jokes. Other attempts at laughs: Beca saying “stepmonster,” Aubrey noting that a “toner” is a musical boner or Chloe (Brittany Snow) saying, “This ginger needs her jiggle juice.”
Never do the groups, who couldn’t hang on “The Sing-Off,” spend legitimate time discussing what songs to perform or working on the arrangements. Save Beca's rendition of “No Diggity,” they make no connection to the material and hardly communicate the joy they get from singing. That's disingenuous on the level of the “Glee 3D Concert Movie.”
Speaking of which: My wife fast-forwards through “Glee” so she only has to watch the performances. That'd be a wise move with “Pitch Perfect,” except you'd only see about 15 minutes of footage, and half of it would be repeated versions of “The Sign.” Appropriately, watching “Pitch Perfect” speaks less to your ears than your gag reflex.
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