Pitch Perfect

* * * 1/2

Pitch Perfect almost is just that, a roaring comedy about dueling collegiate a capella teams featuring more laughs than just about any comedy this year, and that’s saying something in a year that’s brought us such offbeat gems as Safety Not Guaranteed and Ruby Sparks, both terrific.  Pitch Perfect doesn’t aim for the indie smart and offbeatness of those pictures, but it is fast, funny, well acted and features some great music.

Anna Kendrick (Oscar-nominated for Up in the Air) stars as Beca Mitchell, a would-be DJ and university freshman who finds solace in mixing music to deal with her parents’ recent divorce.  At the behest of her university professor dad (John Benjamin Hickey), she agrees to give college a try for a year (her real dream is move to LA and become a music producer) and reluctantly joins an a capella group named The Bellas.

Led by Aubrey (Anna Camp) and Chloe (Brittany Snow), The Bellas are a down-on-their-luck girl group who went all the way to the national finals last year only to be beaten by The Treblemakers, a competing boy group who won on technicality after a very unfortunate episode involving projectile vomit (it sounds crass, but plays like a stitch).

The competition is on again this year, and The Bellas recruit a whole new crew, providing comic opportunities that pay off in spades, namely a motley band of laugh-out-loud misfits including potential butch lesbian Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean), whispering weirdo Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) and oversexed Stacey (Alexis Knapp). Each of the women is given numerous eccentricities and zingers—no one is here as wallpaper.

But the piece de resistance of this show is a first-class clown of an actress named Rebel Wilson (Bridesmaids, Bachelorette), who brings down the Pitch Perfect house as a character named Fat Amy who, good as Kendrick is, walks away with the entire movie in gag after gag, both the physical sight kind (she rips open her blouse during a solo and I actually felt tears rolling down my cheeks) and a cavalcade of deadpan one-liners, delivered with a superbly blasé poker face. This is a star-making comedy performance, and one that deserves to be a part of the discussion at year’s end.

The new guy on The Treblemakers team is Jesse (Skylar Astin), who falls quickly for Beca, showing her the finer points of The Breakfast Club’s ending (and the fine musicality of Simple Minds) while working alongside her at the college radio station. But Beca’s a loner and prefers her mix software to mixing it up with Jesse, and it won’t come as a surprise that they go head to head in the final competition at Lincoln Center.

So far I am describing the plot of the film, but what registers here really is the screenplay, direction and performances.  Director Jason Moore does a superb job keeping the picture moving at a rapid clip and balancing the many characters, as well as keeping the tentative flirtation appropriately in check, and screenwriter Kay Cannon’s adaptation of Mickey Rapkin’s book is less Glee and more Bridesmaids, and wacky comedy joke machine with intermittent music.

But Pitch Perfect is not a musical, per se, given that very few full songs are sung and the majority are of the popular variety.  It goes without saying that Beca transforms the bitchy, milquetoast Aubrey’s underlings from Ace of Base to Rihanna, Nelly and other edgy fare, and the message—you gotta be different to truly be special—isn’t profound but works anyway.  Each of the women, particularly Camp and Brittany Snow (Hairspray), can really do their stuff in the way of vocalizing.

Tongue-in-cheek for 105 minutes and delivered by a solid ensemble, including two hilariously jaded turns by competition hosts John Michael Higgins and bouffant-ed Elizabeth Banks (who also co-produced), Pitch Perfect made me smile in each scene. It’s bright, not insulting and genuinely funny.

And Rebel Wilson has just become a star.

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