Kids sure are a lot more together than they used to be.
Take the class of 2016 at fictional East Coast school Barden College, almost all of whom seem to be consumed by an informed life in music by the time we meet them in Jason Moore’s Pitch Perfect. Beca (Anna Kendrick) attends out of force; she promised her estranged father, Dr. Mitchell (John Benjamin Hickey), that she would try college for a year before heading to Los Angeles in search of a career in music. In fact, when she arrives – via taxi – to her dorm on move-in day, she doesn’t even tote any clothes, just some expensive computer equipment with which she mashes up songs.
Then there’s Jesse (an impressive Skylar Astin), a singer who already has all the moves and notes down to be as good as a professional singer (the actor playing him has proven himself in musical theater). There’s also Aubrey (Anna Camp) and Chloe (Brittany Snow), the Heathers-like heads of the Bellas, one of the two dominant a cappella groups at Barden. Their enemy? The Treblemakers, who won the national singing tournament at which the Bellas face planted the year before. Begrudgingly, the sour Beca joins the Bellas, while Jesse takes the Treblemakers by storm.
This would seem to be the entirety of the college experience, according to Perfect, which 30 Rock writer Kay Cannon adapted from Mickey Rapkin’s boo, a non-fiction look at the world of a cappella. Beca and Jesse’s entire freshman year is covered by their love of all things music. They, and everyone they meet, including a tiresome role for Rebel Wilson as a plus-size Bella who calls herself Fat Amy before the bitchy women she meet can, are totally savvy and hyper-articulate about music. And they have an amazing amount of savoir faire and self-prepossession for 18-year-olds.
Which means Moore’s movie is essentially done right when it begins. These kids are more than all right; there is nowhere for it to go, as hard as Cannon tries to thread a plot together with a clunky romance build between Beca and Jesse and some sorority-esque in-fighting among the girls (Barden apparently has no Greek life, one of many college culture shock tenets eschewed by the film. There’s also very little depiction of experimentation with alcohol, drugs, or sex, or even roommate friction). Also, Moore never shows anyone attending class. And a lot of jokes, including the odd acceptance of Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), a quiet Asian girl who no one can hear when she talks, could have been excised.
For such an adult character, Beca isn’t a fully-formed dramatic creation. She’s abrasively myopic, and though Jesse even calls her behavior out, Perfect doesn’t really justify her attitude and penchant for pushing people away. Additionally, Kendrick lands many of her lines improperly – they feel rehearsed, stagy, a bit too pronounced for the intimate lens of the film camera. (Also, on a purely cosmetic matter, when Chloe accosts Beca in the shower after hearing her sing, Beca is in full makeup. Why?) Camp, on the other hand, fine-tuning her conservative alpha bitch persona, is hilarious, and Ester Dean is memorable as a background Bella.
What Perfect does have going for it is a cast that can sing, which they do again, and again, and again as both a cappella groups race towards the national competition. (John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks, a producer on the film and undergrad a cappella alum herself, appear awkwardly as competition commentators.) Their performances are the highlights of the film (Moore directed the terrific Tony-winner Avenue Q), though since Cannon uses the numbers for punch lines and surprise purposes, we never get to see how songs are chosen or numbers rehearsed and choreographed.
Perfect also comes off a bit like a “Now That’s What I Call Music!” memento for 2012, as the Bellas almost exclusively choose modern hits for their numbers, like David Guetta’s “Titanium.” Between that and Jesse’s obsession with The Breakfast Club, Perfect comes off as derivative. A film so wrapped up in touchstones can never become one of its own.