If you've seen the trailers for Pitch Perfect, you're aware that it's being packaged as a quasi-Bridesmaids-meets-Glee-meets-Bring It On. This is one of those rare moments when there's truth to the marketing -- Pitch Perfect is exactly what it purports to be, it just stretches those homages over a 112 -minute runtime and never quite carves out its own niche in the canon.
Director Jason Moore's musical comedy follows Beca (Anna Kendrick), a college freshman at Barden University who's more interested in mixing beats on her laptop and moving to L.A .to become a music producer than she is in the collegiate lifestyle. But through the prompting of her father, a professor at Barden, she's coaxed into sticking with it for a year before she makes the decision to chuck it all. There's one catch, though -- she must join an extracurricular activity. (Frankly, this is just the beginning of Pitch Perfect's troubling plot contrivances; the entire reason Beca sticks at Barden, this father plot line, is completely unbelievable.)
Conversely, uptight and unflinching Aubrey (Anna Camp), the newly minted leader of Barden's all-female a cappella group The Bellas, is desperate to put together a winning group to defend their title at nationals after a disastrous showing the year prior (it involves a particularly disgusting nervous tic of Aubrey's, a painfully unfunny gag that reveals itself multiple times throughout the film, and reeks of the script's Bridesmaids plot-point checklist). Together with her co-captain Chloe (Brittany Snow), a misfit group of stragglers is amassed and the training begins -- but not without friction from their rival Barden team, all-boys group The Treblemakers.
There are some great things about Pitch Perfect, but they're buried in supporting roles and one-liners (and even those -- the "aca" addition to comebacks and statements, for example -- are grating by the end). Rebel Wilson, as Fat Amy, absolutely steals the film, despite playing a diluted version of her Bridesmaids character. Her comedic delivery, heart and spirit spill over the frames; she is far and beyond the best thing about this movie, and if it manages cult-classic status, she's the one to thank. Hana Mae Lee is also fantastic as Lilly, an almost-silent presence who delivers absurd lines and belts bars in whisper (although after witnessing a cutthroat Bellas audition sequence, it's hard to kick the nagging wonder about how and why a near-silent singer got recruited to the team). Another fantastic surprise: Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins as Gale and John, two professional a cappella announcers. Their scenes are clearly improvised, and they absolutely go at it, bringing the mean, the funny, the awkward, you name it.
But then there's Kendrick. She's supposed to be a pseudo-goth, angsty outsider, but she just looks constipated and half checked-out through the whole movie. Sure, she can belt a song, but nothing about her screams protagonist; her arc feels more like a shrug, her presence reads as a slouch. It's even obvious in trailers, which are supposed to highlight the best of a film and its players in short bursts of energy: It doesn't seem like her heart's in this one, and -- were she not the lead role -- she'd be completely forgettable because of it. Dually ho-hum is Skylar Astin as Jesse, a simpatico member of The Treblemakers, and Beca's love interest. He's likable enough on his own, but, when paired with Kendrick, it's like all the oxygen is sucked out of the room. The two have zero chemistry. Consider it in comparison with another film Pitch Perfect mirrors in some ways, the aforementioned Bring It On: Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Bradford are crackling in that film, so much so that even a tooth-brushing scene is riddled with tension and chemistry.
But lest I lose sight of the main draw of Pitch Perfect: It's true, the music mash-ups are catchy as hell. I still have David Guetta's “Titanium” stuck in my head weeks later, and I don't even mind. You will never catch me sitting through an episode of cloying, uber-dramatic Glee, but I got a little goosebumpy during the song-and-dance sequences in Pitch Perfect. Despite the issues I have with some of the plot points and characters, there's more than enough development to give the sequences stakes, and the production and performance of the mixes is iPod-worthy stuff.
After speaking with colleagues, it's clear there's plenty of love for Pitch Perfect -- I certainly don't want to come off as a grouch, it just didn't wrap me in its spell. I find the story contrived and the lead performances uninspired. Plenty of hilarious one-liners, strong supporting roles, an epic turn by Wilson and way catchy music certainly kept me in my seat, but I don't think it has the legs to stand alongside the classics it seeks to mimic. Sure, there are all kinds of movies, and Pitch Perfect is clearly not seeking to be intensely cerebral, political or Oscar-worthy, but it needs to check all of its own boxes - the ones that make a film memorable on its given terms. I'd dust off my copies of Bridesmaids and Bring It On before I'd see Pitch Perfect again.
Pitch Perfect opens in select cities Friday and nationwide Oct. 5.