*****Note to Editor: Release date is Friday September 28, and there is no embargo. *****
By JAMES DAWSON
Front Row Features Film Critic
Less cleverly ironic and movie-musical stylized than “Glee” but obviously greenlighted to capitalize on that TV show’s success, the off-key “Pitch Perfect” is more flat than sharp. Performances by the movie’s competing college (instead of high school) vocal groups are much more entertaining than what passes for a plot here, where the humor ranges from broadly silly to off-puttingly crude. The messiest scenes in “Glee” involve nothing more disgusting than faces full of slushies, but “Pitch Perfect” features a girl lying on the floor using her arms to make snow angels in a massive quantity of vomit. Next!
The oddest fit here is star Anna Kendrick, who is too smart for the room as both a performer and a character. Her humorlessly mature Beca is a loner college freshman more interested in remixing tunes on her laptop than mixing with her fellow students. Her professor father tells her that if she signs up for an extracurricular activity but still wants to drop out at the end of the year, he will bankroll her move to Los Angeles. That’s where she dreams of getting a job at a music label.
Beca is recruited by an a cappella group called the Bellas after she is overheard singing in the shower, the same way many “Glee” characters were discovered on that show. Unfortunately, this is one of those movies where the serious-minded viewpoint character spends most of her time being visibly unamused by the antics of her very cartoonish castmates. The Bellas are a bunch of unrealistically oddball misfits, and Beca may as well be rolling her eyes in disbelief whenever she is with them.
Making matters worse is fellow freshman Jesse (Skylar Astin), an asexual sitcom-stereotype “nice guy” who keeps making boyfriend-wannabe moves. Beca is supposed to find this testosterone-free “Breakfast Club” fan charming, but his smugly self-satisfied persona is like an irritating cross between John Krasinski and Dane Cook. It’s impossible to see why Beca encourages irksome Jesse’s attentions yet is utterly uninterested in the smarter, cooler, hipper and better-looking Luke (Freddie Stroma), the infinitely more masculine manager of the campus radio station where Beca works.
The screenplay, inspired by Mickey Rapkin’s non-fiction book and written by six-year “30 Rock” writing/producing veteran Kay Cannon, shows precious little of that show’s snarky intelligence or charming absurdity. Jason Moore, who directed Broadway hits including “Shrek the Musical” and “Avenue Q,” brings nothing new or special to the project.
Also, even though we’re now more than 12 years into the 21st century, the movie relies too heavily on songs from the 20th. One thing “Rock of Ages” reaffirmed is that oldies-but-baddies like “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” do not improve with age.
The movie’s most amusing Bella is an overweight extrovert who says she is “the best singer in Tasmania with teeth” and forthrightly calls herself Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson from “Bridesmaids”). Dictatorial group leader Aubrey (“The Help”‘s Anna Camp) uses a cappella-related expressions such as “aca-scuse me?” Ridiculously quiet Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) is an Asian version of “Glee”‘s soft-spoken airhead Brittany. Both monotone characters are given to muttering bizarre non sequiturs such as Lilly’s “I set fires to feel joy” and “I ate my twin in the womb.”
Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins play a pair of rudely sarcastic commentators at the singing events who give those sections of the movie a Christopher-Guest-lite attitude. Their put-downs have to be taken on faith, however, because there’s no appreciable difference in quality between on-screen performances of things like Ace of Base’s “The Sign” (which the judges hate, although it’s actually quite perky) and a nothing-special reworked version of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” (which wows everyone).
Plot points including not one but two appearances of projectile puking make the less than “Glee”-ful “Pitch Perfect” more sour than sweet.