At last. I started writing about this movie several weeks ago, and I have gotten sidetracked more times than I care to admit. I feel great about posting this piece at last, but I also feel behind the times as well as though I am the last person to arrive at the party…
Maybe the whole thing is just generational, but when it comes to female bonding comedies, I’m generally more 9 to 5 (1980) and First Wives Club (1996) than I am Bridesmaids (2011). Funny that. When the first two movies were released, I was younger than the women on screen–significantly younger. On the other hand, I’m about a decade older than the top-billed stars of Bridesmaids, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph. I adore Kristen Wiig. I adore Rudolph too, of course, but I think Wiig may very well be the most fearless performer to ever grace the cast of Saturday Night Live, emphasis on the word “live.” (Can someone actually be “most fearless”? Hmmmmm….) My point is that as much as I love Wiig, and as thrilled as I was that she earned an Oscar nomination for co-writing (w/Annie Mumolo) Bridesmaids, I pretty much hated that film, and I’ve never made any bones about it. You can check out my 2011/12 Oscar coverage to verify because it’s all there. Again, maybe it’s generational.
Oh sure, I chuckled off and on during the movie, mostly when Best Supporting Actress nominee Melissa McCarthy was onscreen. Obviously, Wiig had some inspired moments as well, but the movie pushed the whole gross-out meter to a level that left me more stupefied than amused. I won’t go so far as to say I was offended because I think “offended” is an easy crutch for people who simply don’t like something, and I don’t buy into that. I do wish, on the other hand, that I had never seen parts of Bridesmaids, and when I say “parts,” I’m referring specifically to the sequence set in the bridal salon. If you’ve seen it, you know exactly what I mean, and you might have laughed yourself silly; after all, the movie made a whopping $169 million in this country alone–against a budget of 32 mil. If you haven’t seen it, you might consider yourself lucky. Someone would have to pay me a lot of money to watch that movie again.
Anyway, my distaste for Bridesmaids pretty much fueled my apprehension about last fall’s female bonding comedy, Pitch Perfect. I think Universal, which released both titles, wanted to capitalize on the success of the former in its marketing campaign for the latter, mostly by featuring actress Rebel Wilson prominently in the trailer. Aussie Wilson, a zaftig blonde with wicked timing, made a vivid impression in Bridesmaids playing a character, one of Wiig’s roommates, who was more than a little creepy. Likewise, I seem to recall, and I might be mistaken, something to the effect of, “From the same studio that brought you Bridesmaids, …” in the Pitch Perfect pre-release hype. At any rate, I was originally content to skip Pitch Perfect. I expressed my reservation to a friend, especially the part about not wanting to see spewing vomit–and other bodily fluids as in Bridesmaids. This friend did nothing to reassure me that wasn’t the case. Indeed, I was told that there was indeed spewing, so that was all I needed, or so I thought.
Eventually, more and more of my friends, people I trusted–and people with whom I believed shared a certain taste level–were seeing Pitch Perfect. Then, I decided it might be worth a look. My plan was to see it when it hit the second-run house in my neighborhood (to call it a $1.00 house anymore would no longer be correct). It played there for several weeks, and just when one of my friends and I decided it would make a great b’day flick for her (toward the end of January), it vanished. Instead, my friend and I saw Broken City, and I rented Pitch Perfect on DVD as soon as I had the chance. Now, I can’t believe it took so long. I’m sorry I missed it on “the big screen,” as the old saying goes (or used to go), so allow me to share if you have not yet caught up with delightful flick.
Briefly, Pitch Perfect follows the women in college a capella group from one year to the next as it undergoes a change in leadership and the arrival of a gaggle of new students who just don’t quite the fit expectation of slim, conventionally pretty girls who can be easily coaxed into singing the same old songs time after time. That’s not all. These women face an uphill struggle in that they are an anomaly in a male dominated field; moreover, they attend the same school as the top ranked male group, and the “Bellas,” as they are known, have to live down a humiliating showing at an early competition, and when I say humiliating, I mean a disaster of epic proportions. The key players in this tale include Anna Kendrick, both a former Oscar and Tony nominee, as Beca, the nominal lead, a headstrong newcomer who’d rather be a music producer or a d.j. rather than a student at the same university where her father teaches; the aforementioned Rebel Wilson as a Tasmanian transplant who calls herself “Fat Amy”; Anna Camp (previously seen in The Help, among others) as Aubrey, the uptight priss of the group who, unfortunately, doesn’t do well with stress, and Brittany Snow (red-tressed in a stunning departure from the blonde locks she sported on American Dreams and the 2007 edition of Hairspray) as Chloe, Aubrey’s noticeably cooler bff. Other significant roles are played by Ester Dean, as a none too subtle lesbian named Cynthia-Rose, and Hana Mae Lee, as the barely audible Lilly Onakuramara.
Before I elaborate on what it is I like about Pitch Perfect, allow me to go ahead and list its shortcomings. First, there’s not much originality here as bits and pieces play like, well, a mix-tape of loads of other shows. There’s TV’s Glee, of course, with its backstage look at a high school choir. Again, there’s Rebel Wilson and the whole Bridesmaids connection, including at least one major gross-out moment. The campy cheerleading competition comedy Bring It On shares a couple of plot points (the new leader who struggles to make her own mark; a high-stakes finale) and character types (the edgy chick with “attitude” who has to be talked into joining the group). It’s also impossible to ignore the love shown to the films of John Hughes, especially The Breakfast Club (like Bring It On and Pitch Perfect, another Universal release). Likewise, as a friend of my observed, the scenes with Elizabeth Banks (who also doubles as the film’s producer) and John Michael Higgis, as a pair of bickering contest commentators, echo a similar dynamic between Jim Piddock and Fred Willard in Christopher Guest’s Best in Show; indeed, the Guest association is hard to miss since Higgis is a veteran of the celebrated “mockumentary” filmmaker’s repertory company. (The screenplay, by the way, is credited to Kay Cannon and is derived the non-fiction book of the same name by Mickey Rapkin,.)
There are other points that give me pause. I think the movie traffics in unflattering stereotypes, especially regarding the lesbian character and Asians. Dean’s Ester Rose is the butt of a few too many gags. Plus, she suffers a potentially serious issue, not necessarily related to her sexuality, that is tossed aside rather casually after it is used as a punchline. Neither of the two prominently featured Asian characters, Hana Mae Lee as spooky Lilly and Jinhee Jhoung as freshman Beca’s humor-impaired roommate, seem less than fully human though at least the former has the advantage of a few priceless non-sequiturs, but close listening skills are definitely required. Finally, I’ll admit that as funny as the movie is, and it’s often quite funny, that there are probably as many lines that mis-fire as there are those that hit–and a lot of those are spoken by Wilson’s Fat Amy though the actress’s lip-smacking delivery never falters.
Now, what do I like so much about this movie, especially in comparison to Bridesmaids? See, besides the over-the-top gross-out moments in Wiig’s offering, there was also something un-nerving about the characters. They were pathetic, and it was disturbing to see grown women act like, well, children. Here is where I need to clarify: I can’t recall whether the ages of the characters (in Bridesmaids) are ever mentioned, but I do know that Wiig and Rudolph were in their late thirties at the time of the film’s release; McCarthy was already forty (per the IMDb). I hate it anymore that so many adult women in TV and movies resemble girls–petty, immature, irresponsible, frivolous, and flighty–and this is a trend I actually began noticing 20 years ago.
In contrast, the characters in Pitch Perfect are young women who are trying to find, or forge, their identities as adults, and I think that’s touching. The bulk of this idea is played out in the storylines of Kendrick’s Becca and Camp’s Aubrey, both of whom are trying to navigate their own paths in spite of some familiar obstacles: one has a dad who is a little too close for comfort in addition to a boyfriend whose best intentions are often mis-read as a result of the young woman’s dad-related ambivalence; the other woman has a dad whose standards are so high that it has affected her on multiple levels. (One of her dad’s favorite quotes is, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of Kuwait.”) Furthermore, even within the group, these two women specifically deal with attempts to make their marks. Becca is the new girl who bucks convention; Aubrey is the leader who is burdened with both living up to her predecessors and living down her very public disaster. Of course, these issues are not addressed with a great deal of depth, but they, and some of the other scenarios depicted in the film, are quite real for young women, and the actresses (again, starting with Kendrick and Mann) bring a lot of conviction to their roles.
I also like that Snow’s Chloe has such a healthy disposition about her body and sex–oh sure, she still needs to learn a thing or two about boundaries, but, again, she’s young and still learning. I also think it’s cool that Fat Amy doesn’t back down even when the odds are stacked against her. She just seizes control of any situation and makes it work to her advantage. She will not be silenced or ignored.
Of course, backing up to Snow’s Chloe, I guess her character’s healthy sexuality is contrasted by the cartoonish sexuality of Alexis Knapp’s Staci Conrad, the weakest characterization in the bunch. I guess if there is an upside to Knapp’s character, it is that it in some weird way balances the sexual fixation of Ester Dean’s Cynthia-Rose, thereby showing that just as there are lesbians with strong sexual impulses, there are plenty of hetero girls who behave similarly. Is that a positive message? I can’t say for sure. Luckily, it’s not the primary focus.
You know what else I just love about Pitch Perfect? I love that it was such a great word-of-mouth hit. Yes, it was generally well-reviewed (no less than David Edelstein of New York included it on his year-end 10 Best List, which I found out about months after the fact), but it was not the box office behemoth that Bridesmaids was. Instead, the $ 17 million production earned a more than respectable, if less than spectacular, 65 million domestically. Not shabby; however, the movie’s real legs were not as evident until it appeared on DVD/Blu-Ray earlier this year. Sales have been so brisk that there have been at least two mentions about it in Entertainment Weekly. Per Universal’s Peter Cramer, the robust home video returns exceed projections based on box office take. Cramer’s words may very well be among the most refreshingly candid things uttered by a studio head lately. Oh, and just how brisk are those sales? Again, as reported in EW. as of March, there have been 2.4 million units (DVD/Blu Ray) sold for a whopping 90 million dollars–and counting. That also includes video-on-demand with Pitch Perfect coming in right behind Universal’s Ted and Bridesmaids, natch. Once again, those two films were major, major, box office triumphs, so their VOD popularity is fitting and expected. Furthermore, the soundtrack has also sold steadily and has even launched an unlikely hit in Kendrick’s “Cups,” an intriguingly little ditty that lasts only a mere 77 seconds.
I still say that Pitch Perfect should have done a little bit better in the most recent awards derby than it did. I outline some of my main points in the sidebars accompanying many of the pictures in this article. Besides those considerations, special note should be made of the wonderful team that arranged and/or produced the many musical tracks, re-imagining a bunch of familiar tunes as strictly a capella showpieces. Nice job, y’all, and another great reason to love Pitch Perfect. Too bad the Academy has currently opted out of the song score and/or adapted score category. Well, it was always a little confusing, I guess. I also guess that the recent MTV Movie Awards almost, ALMOST correct that shortcoming since the film topped the “Best Musical Moment” category (the Bellas’ impromptu rendition of “No Diggity”), which also included such crowd-pleasers as Ann Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables and the hunky cast of Magic Mike, including People cover guy Channing Tatum, performing a sexy routine to the campy disco classic, “It’s Raining Men.”
Okay, now comes the bad news. There’s a sequel in the works. I hate this because Pitch Perfect is, to quote Mary Poppins, “practically perfect,” which means it’s already complete. Some sequels are worth a look; some even surpass their originals. Most do not. Why mess with perfection?
If you haven’t seen Pitch Perfect yet, maybe this short music video featuring beatbox artist Mike Tompkins, Pitch Perfect cast members (excluding popular Wilson), and a chorus of fans and non-pros will make you reconsider. The song is “Starships,” originally recorded by Nicki Minaj; I actually like Minaj’s original, but I think this cover-version is pure pop magic. It can brighten my bleakest day, and I think it’s quite a wondrous thing that so many diverse people can be momentarily united by music. Enjoy!
Now, if you like that, go watch the movie. You can thank me later.
Official Elizabeth Banks website: http://elizabethbanks.com/
David Edelstein (New York/NPR) Top 10 of 2012: http://www.vulture.com/2012/11/david-edelstein-top-ten-movies.html
Smith, Grady. “Pitch Perfect Keeps Hitting New High Notes.” Entertainment Weekly. 22 March 2013.
Pitch Perfect sequel: http://insidemovies.ew.com/2013/04/16/pitch-perfect-sequel-2015/