College a cappella groups are cool now, apparently, which must be at once gratifying and frustrating for the hundreds of people who participated in them 20 years ago, when they weren’t. “Pitch Perfect,” a scattershot but infectious comedy in the vein of “Bring It On” and TV’s “Glee,” is here to capitalize on the a cappella boom, although its formula — rival performing groups compete for an award — could be (and has been) applied to just about everything.
A cappella is a big deal at the fictitious Barden University, where Beca (Anna Kendrick), an aloof freshman who wants to be a DJ and is only in school to placate her professor father (John Benjamin Hickey), gets roped into joining The Bellas. They are the only all-female vocal group ever to reach the finals of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (which is a real thing), but they lost to another Barden group, the Treble Makers, an all-male bunch of fratty douchebags best represented by their smug leader, Bumper (Adam DeVine).
Beca is added to the ensemble because she can sing well, but she immediately clashes with The Bellas’ director, Aubrey (Anna Camp), an uptight, in-it-to-win-it taskmaster whose own flubs are what cost them the championship last year. Aubrey insists on retaining the group’s familiar set list of ’90s pop songs reworked for a cappella, while Beca thinks The Bellas could stand to be hipper. Aubrey’s second in command, Chloe (Brittany Snow), isn’t sure whom to support. Beca’s fellow newcomer Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), a confident Tasmanian who owns her girth by referring to it constantly, is on Beca’s side.
Further conflict is provided by The Bellas’ intense rivalry with the Treble Makers, with whom Bellas are strictly forbidden from fraternizing. Ignoring that childish restriction, the Trebles’ new singer Jesse (Skylar Astin) befriends Beca, the cute “hook” of their relationship being that she doesn’t like movies (?!) and he wants to change her mind.
Weak character details like that are unfortunately prevalent in the film, which was written by “30 Rock” scribe Kay Cannon and directed by Jason Moore (who has helmed TV shows like “One Tree Hill” and “Brothers & Sisters” but hasn’t made a movie before). Beca’s dad’s opposition to her career plans doesn’t ring true, nor does the notion that a girl like Beca would have to be forced to go to college. Less significant but just as telling is the running joke where new Bella singer Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) always speaks and sings in an imperceptible whisper. That’s funny and all — but if you can’t hear her, why would you put her in the group?
Ironically, Beca’s complaint about movies is that they’re predictable, which “Pitch Perfect” most assuredly is. But it’s also very funny at times, usually when it embraces the campiness of the subject matter. The best examples of that are John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks as veteran a cappella competition commentators, whose observations walk the line between loving and hating the event. (Banks on the Treble Makers’ popularity with female audiences: “Nothing makes a woman feel more like a girl than a man who sings like a boy.”) Serious reverence for a cappella as an art form wouldn’t have served the film very well, but neither would outright mockery. For the most part, the tone is right down the middle, with genuinely impressive high-energy performances from the singing groups balanced by an awareness that a cappella is dorky. (“Organized nerd singing” is what Jesse calls it, before he joins up.)
Anna Kendrick’s chipper, sardonic demeanor suits the movie well. She’s supported by Rebel Wilson, whose in-your-face “outrageousness” is overplayed here but still generally funny; she has the potential to be a major comic star. Adam DeVine (from TV’s “Workaholics”) helps convince us that an a cappella group could be full of party animals, bringing absurd swagger to the Treble Makers. I suspect this is the kind of comedy that grows less funny with repeat viewings, not more. But it’s a good, up-tempo confection that first time around.
B (1 hr., 52 min.; )