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June 9, 2015


Rob gets aca-defensive of an underrated comedy.


"Nothing makes a woman feel more like a girl than a man who sings like a boy."

Let's get one thing straight before we start: Pitch Perfect is not a classic comedy. It's not outrageous or groundbreaking. The direction and cinematography are nothing special. Many of the characters are embarrassing stereotypes. But it's slick and confident. It's a damn good buddy movie. It's got a decent message about cooperation and harmony. It understands that music is a narrative tool that can deepen theme. The plot is driven by characters making decisions and pursuing goals. Crucify me if you like, but I'll be damned if there is a more worthy successor to Heathers and Mean Girls than Pitch Perfect.

Beca (Anna Kendrick) is a Cool and Unique Rebel. She isolates herself behind a laptop screen, remixing pop songs in GarageBand and dreaming of the day she can spin her beats in public. Her first week of college is not going well. Instead of making friends like Dad wants, she's busy honing her craft and trying to get an internship at a radio station (Dad has really screwed up priorities, by the way). But eventually we all try to reach out, and Beca discovers the hilariously aggressive underground world of competitive a capella. Turns out the Girl Group needs a new member. From there, it's your standard Make-it-to-Regionals, Will-They-Won't-They, Can-This-Rag-Tag-Bunch-of-Misfits-Come-Together-as-a-Team kind of stuff. But it works.

Comedies often ditch plot for the sake of laughs, but Pitch Perfect's script holds up to scrutiny (trust me, I've laid it out on a whiteboard). Beca makes decisions. She has a stake in the aca-madness because she finds legitimate personal satisfaction from it. It's not just because The Group Needs Her or She Wants to Win the Boy. This isn't Bring it On. The film never, ever forgets that competitive a capella is ridiculous, and so Beca's catharsis comes when she finds her place as a leader and discovers that she can mix her beats and have friends who accept her for who she is. She's never boxed in or forced to compromise her goals.

There's no doubt that the other Bellas are one-note, but that doesn't mean they're flat characters. Most of them have a single trait that shapes their narrative purpose (the quiet girl learns to beatbox!), and their development contributes to the film's thematic search for harmony in the face of juvenile cacophony. Note that each of the key Bellas has a lead part in the finale, and that their song choices mirror their individual journeys (Beca's signature tune goes from David Guetta's "Titanium" to Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me").

Speaking of which, Beca's John Hughes-obsessed love interest Jesse (Skylar Astin) spends the entire film leaning on the fourth wall and predicting the plot as it goes along. His sole purpose seems to be daring cineastes to shit on the film. It's here that Pitch Perfect goes from a benign comedy to a commentary on the merits of traditional narrative structure. The girls are all learning that conformity is okay when it's on their terms, and a careful viewer will realize that the same thesis extends to the film itself: It wants to be a traditional teen comedy. It wants to come-of-age. And yes, it's completely ridiculous that one of Beca's character traits is that she "hates movies" (no one hates movies), but of course we realize that she's arguing with the very fact that she's a movie character. She relents in this, sure, but she does it on her own. The film trusts and admires Beca so much that it only gives Jesse power when she wants him to have it. Their reconciliation is just icing on the cake.

That isn't to say Pitch Perfect isn't without its problems. Like many teen comedies, it has an awful tendency to rely too heavily on social stereotypes for comedy beats. The film loses me when the entire premise of a joke leans on Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) being fat, or Cynthia-Rose (Ester Dean) being a lesbian (and being gay meaning that you can't keep your hands to yourself). But these cringe-worthy moments are almost worth it in the end: The film is illustrating how much the girls need to stop looking for differences and start embracing similarities. Fat Amy is never pitied. She's got real agency and the film trusts its audience to see that if they're willing.

Pitch Perfect will always be a hard sell. It's easy to dismiss as trite and condescending. But it isn't. It's the kind of film I'd want my kid to watch. It embraces its cinematic roots and does something interesting with the branches. It's fun and offensive and self-aware. Above all, it's got Anna Kendrick. What else do you need? What are you, a commie?







Rob writes and podcasts for The Ugly Club. Pitch Perfect is available on Blu-Ray from Amazon.com

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