Friday, December 7, 2012

‘Pitch Perfect’ (2012) directed by Jason Moore, 5th December 2012

(It's actually released 21st December in the UK.)

I have a soft spot for films that treat something ridiculous like it’s the most important thing in the world.  ‘Pitch Perfect’ is about a cappella singing, and the way the film tells it, a cappella is the most wildly popular thing in the world at the moment.  The world of a cappella is super dramatic, there are fierce rivalries between a cappella groups, angry showdowns where gangs size up and a cappella at each other in abandoned swimming pools.  This is a film where lines like "The bad boys of a cappella have just gotten badder!" have to be delivered with a straight face.  You try it!  

Now, I don’t profess to be plugged into what’s ‘hip’ in US colleges, but unless there’s been some enormous cultural upheaval while I wasn’t looking I seriously doubt this film bears much resemblance to reality.  A film about the cut-throat world of a cappella has the potential to be at worst unwatchably boring, and maybe at best tolerable, so I was surprised when, early on in ‘Pitch Perfect’, I realised I’d had a silly grin on my face nearly the entire time.  Director Jason Moore and his cast and production team seem to have figured that if they have to make a film about a team of sassy a cappella singers, they’re going to make the best film about a team of sassy a cappella singers they can.

"I'm in a film about a cappella?  Whatevs!"
The film grabs the ridiculousness baton and runs with it as fast as it can.  Throughout the film, characters preface random words with "aca": "aca-believe it!", "aca-scuse me?", "we're going to have aca-children", "you've had aca-sex!".  You're probably sick of it already, but 'Pitch Perfect' is so charming that this not only doesn't stop being funny, it gets funnier the more they do it. 

The plot, such as it is, concerns Beca (Anna Kendrick) arriving in college.  She doesn’t want to be there at all, her real desire is to go to LA and fulfil her dream of becoming the best damn Macbook based mashup DJ in the world.  But her lame college professor dad says maybe she should give this college thing a try for just one semester.  If she can stay in a college society for that time he’ll pay for her to follow her mashup DJing dreams.  She ends up in the ‘Bellas’, an all girl a cappella singing team brought low by an unexpected projectile vomiting incident in last year’s a cappella finals.  This year they’re the underdogs, a  rag tag team of misfits, widely seen as no hopers by snooty jock a cappella crew “the Treble Makers”. But can Beca’s streetwise mashup mixing skills reinvigorate the Bellas set list?  Will Beca learn the true value of friendship and teamwork?  And will the Bellas finally lift aloft the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella trophy? 

This is Beca (Anna Kendrick) as you can see she is dangerously alternative.
I’ve got a smile on my fact just from typing up that.  What makes this film work is its utterly self conscious barminess.  Let’s take the central character of Beca.  She’s looked on with suspicion as an alt-girl, a dangerous and unpredictable outsider.  This is signified by the fact that she wears a lot of eyeliner and rolls her eyes a lot.  Her dream of becoming the best damn Macbook based mashup DJ in the world is pretty damn weird too.  I don’t want to sound culturally snooty, but hello? 2005 called – it wants its music trend back!  But I can forgive this for one reason, it means the film gets to contain a montage where Anna Kendrick very seriously listens to this  remix of The Proclaimer’s ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’!   The smile muscles in my face were tingling in exhaustion.

While watching this it dawned on me that Anna Kendrick must possess some weird acting voodoo.  Her character is, on paper, a horrible person.  She’s unhappy that she’s been given free college tuition in the US!  I know people that are scraping their way through mountains of McDonalds chip fat to eke their way through college, but here Beca shrugs it off like this is some crazy burden on her.  “But Daaaaaaad, I don’t wanna go to college, I want to go to LA and become the best damn Macbook based mashup DJ in the world!”.  If this role was being played by anyone other than Kendrick, I suspect for much of this film’s target audience she may as well have strangled a puppy.  I’ve seen Kendrick in a lot of films lately, ‘End of Watch’, ‘50/50’, ‘Scott Pilgrim vs the World’ and ‘Up in the Air’: and she’s great in all them.  Here, throughout the film there’s a knowing look on her face all the way through, it’s the look of someone who fully realises the bonkers nature of the film she’s in, and has embraced it.  She never quite winks at the camera, but this aura she projects puts her on the audience’s side.  She knows how ridiculous this is, we know how ridiculous it is – let’s just go with it.

The Bellas probably singing a cappella
To be fair to the rest of the cast they all seem to know exactly what kind of film they're in.  I particularly enjoyed the upbeat and hi-energy performances of Brittany Snow and Anna Camp.  Rebel Wilson is also always good fun to watch, but I've seen her in a few films now, and she always seems to play the same character.  It's not that she does anything particularly badly, it's just that the punchline of her being fat is starting to wear a bit thin.

Weirdly, quite a bit of Beca's character development is tied up in her watching and understanding John Hughes' 'The Breakfast Club'.  I like 'The Breakfast Club' as much as anyone, and I suppose if you squint the message that we all have more in common than we might think carries over here.  The difference between the two films is that 'The Breakfast Club' is actually sincere about its message and treats its characters seriously.  'Pitch Perfect' doesn't,  it almost feels like it's feeding, vampire-like on a classic film.  If you haven't seen 'The Breakfast Club 'Pitch Perfect' still works perfectly well, but if you have then the climax gets an additional punch that the film doesn't quite earn.

The Treble Makers.  Boy I HATE these guys so much.
One more criticism is that perhaps the film has one too many projectile vomiting scenes for my liking.  Films need to be economical with scenes like this, there's a law of diminishing returns when it comes to puke jokes, and to keep things fresh you have to keep upping the gross-out ante - with unpleasant consequences.

I'd like to say I walked into this with a strong scepticism and it converted me, but frankly I was pretty sure I'd enjoy the film purely on the strength of its daft concept.    I don't want to see films like 'Amour' or 'The Hunt' every day of the week, sometimes I just want to watch sassy a cappella singers deal with a cappella based problems.  This film is not going to go down as a milestone in cinema, and to be honest large portions of it are already fading from my memory.  But, despite this 'Pitch Perfect' is as good as a ultra-light and fluffy film about sassy a cappella singers can possibly be.  And that, I think is cause for some aca-praise.

'Pitch Perfect' is on wide release from Friday 21st December.  I hope I never have to type 'a cappella' again.

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