As spirited and irresistible as the college a cappella craze it celebrates, “Pitch Perfect” is a cheeky delight. Without straying from the formulas of such campus-competition comedies as “Bring It On,” “Drumline” and “Stomp the Yard,” this upbeat crowdpleaser distinguishes itself with a saucy script and a flawless cast led by Anna Kendrick and a scene-stealing Rebel Wilson. While the nearly two-hour laffer could use a tighter trim, Universal has a potential winner on its hands, provided youth audiences don’t feel oversaturated with superficially similar tube fare like “Glee” and “The Sing-Off.” Pic should really hit the high notes in ancillary.
Of the various extracurricular activities that have been put onscreen, the art of harmonizing sans instruments has long been ripe for this sort of barbed-but-affectionate movie treatment. Loosely based on Mickey Rapkin’s nonfiction book on the a cappella phenomenon, “Pitch Perfect” nails the trappings of this increasingly popular but defiantly un-hip musical subculture: the elaborate vocal arrangements, the self-consciously goofy choreography, the pun-tastic group names and the fiercely competitive spirit perpetuated by campus rivalries and nationwide contests.
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The film opens with just such an event, where the fictional Barden U. is represented by an award-winning male group, the Treblemakers, and their less decorated distaff challengers, the Barden Bellas. But when Bellas leader Aubrey (Anna Camp) gets nervous and violently tosses her cookies mid-solo, the group loses its shot at a championship title, as well as its credibility and most of its members.
Determined to stay in the game, Aubrey and her mellower cohort, Chloe (Brittany Snow), step up their recruiting efforts, even ditching their usual membership standards (thin, gorgeous, white). Their new singers thus include the self-nicknamed Fat Amy (Wilson); Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean), black, sassy and rumoredly lesbian; and Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), an Asian-American so soft-spoken, the camera goes in for an extreme closeup whenever she opens her mouth.
The Bellas also enlist the pic’s designated protag, Beca (Kendrick), a freshman and aspiring DJ with more alternative listening tastes. Per genre specifications, Beca must not only learn to fit in with this ragtag troupe, but also navigate her ongoing flirtation with Jesse (Skylar Astin), a Treblemaker, and therefore off-limits for any self-respecting Bella.
Supplying most of the dramatic tension is Aubrey, a first-class control freak hellbent on whipping the Bellas into competitive shape with cardio-heavy choreography and a repertoire of tried-and-true tunes like “The Sign” and “Turn the Beat Around.” But Beca, an improv artist by nature, wants to inject more spontaneity into the setlist; she even busts out some showstopping hip-hop at an on-campus riff-off, basically the choral equivalent of a gangland rumble.
Conventional though it may be, “Pitch Perfect” feels like a labor of love through and through, starting with the decision to entrust key creative roles to two able feature first-timers: director Jason Moore, a stage helmer best known for “Avenue Q,” and writer Kay Cannon, a scribe on sitcoms “30 Rock” and “New Girl.” Simultaneously snarky and big-hearted, their collaboration adroitly balances musical chops and comedic smarts, marked by a firm conviction that the genre in question deserves more respect than it usually gets.
From a tightly edited montage of students auditioning on Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” to the Treblemakers’ smokin’ renditions of Flo Rida’s “Right Round” and Cee Lo Green’s “Bright Lights Bigger City,” the musical selections cast a wide net, consistent with the we’ll-cover-anything spirit of a cappella. Slick production values lend every number an aural polish more redolent of a recording studio than a live performance, though the actors’ musical bona fides help keep the experience authentic in feel.
Kendrick’s singing talent was apparent in her first feature, “Camp” (2003), and it again serves her well here; while she goes a bit heavy on the eye makeup in an effort to look suitably dark and edgy, her rough-edged vulnerability and whip-smart delivery make it easy to invest in Beca’s journey. The thesp also generates fine chemistry with Astin (“Spring Awakening”) as well as Camp and Snow, both making nuanced impressions in roles that could have been merely one-note.
Still, in a real sense, the picture belongs to Wilson, rightfully receiving her strongest bigscreen showcase since “Bridesmaids.” Socking over most of the throwaway zingers in Cannon’s script, the rising Aussie comedian fearlessly steps into yet another part that pokes fun at her figure, and happily reveals an outsized singing voice and hilarious dance moves to match.
At 112 minutes, “Pitch Perfect” can at times be too much of a good thing; though Dean and Lee both get the chance to play with stereotypes, their roles tend toward repetitive beats, and the decision to recycle that earlier vomiting gag reps a gross misstep in a script that’s otherwise above re-puke. Yet the instincts on display are sharp, alert and enormously appealing, suggesting a project well nurtured at every stage. Elizabeth Banks, one of the film’s credited producers, shares a few amusing scenes with John Michael Higgins as hosts of the a cappella competition.