If you find Glee a national phenomenon that's also irritating as hell, and you were glad to graduate college and get away from endless obligations to attend your friends' a cappella concert, you're probably as wary of Pitch Perfect as I was. A college-set comedy about an all-female a cappella group and the outsider (Anna Kendrick) who shakes it up, Pitch Perfect revolves around the lowest imaginable stakes, and especially in the opening scenes plays way too closely to the expected beats-- Kendrick's character Beca at one point actually says out loud, "I don't want to be in college! I want to move to LA and become a DJ!"
But once Pitch Perfect gets going, there's absolutely no slowing it down, with Kay Cannon's script slinging one zinger after another, and the young cast of up-and-comers biting into the film's bitchiness and flashes of heart with such aplomb they should all become stars immediately. Like Mean Girls and Clueless before it, Pitch Perfect takes what ought to be a story with limited appeal and makes it so hilarious you can't deny it. I practically wore out my hand writing down all the great lines, from delicious put-downs like Rebel Wilson's Fat Amy referring to her teammates as "twiggy bitches" to giddy nonsense like "My dad always says if you're not here to win, get the hell out of Kuwait."
Kendrick sheds her perky go-getter reputation from Up in the Air to play Beca, a city girl who wears a lot of eyeliner and giant DJ headphones, and who would rather create mashups on her laptop and work at the radio station than actually participate in college. But an ultimatum from her dad and some pushy enthusiasm from Chloe (Brittany Snow) leads her to join the Bellas, the prissy all-girl a cappella group that bit the dust at nationals the year before thanks to some uncharacteristic nerves from Aubrey (Anna Camp), who rules the group with a clenched smile and an iron fist. The Bellas are having a rebuilding year, and after auditions (a terrific montage of people singing Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone") they're left with a motley crew that includes Beca, Fat Amy and a handful of other girls who don't quite live up to Aubrey's glossy sorority girl expectations.
There's plenty of inter-group conflict to tackle, but Beca's also dealing with her silently judgmental roommate (Jinhee Joung, with glares that could kill), pressure from her dad, and most of all a flirtation with Jesse (Skylar Astin), a cutie from the rival all-boy a cappella group, led by the grandstanding Bumper (Adam DeVine, who is essentially Jack Black reincarnated). Everything comes to a head several times at a series of a cappella competitions, where Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins provide Best In Show-style commentary that threatens to steal the movie right out from under the kids.
Pitch Perfect makes room for a sly jab toward Glee early on-- "This isn't a high school club where you can sing and dance your way through any social issue or confused sexuality"-- and then runs rings around that show's labored musical numbers, featuring actors with real singing chops and inventive riffs on many, many familiar pop hits. The "Since U Been Gone" audition is the first jolt of giddy pleasure, but then comes the improv sing-off in an empty pool featuring "Let's Talk About Sex" and "No Diggity," and the grand finale features a series of mash-ups so fun and surprising I won't spoil them. Even with its sharp irony, Pitch Perfect takes the musical numbers pretty seriously, and the emotions that slip in through the jokes may force you to acknowledge you're more invested in the story than you might want to admit.
First-time feature director Jason Moore could have helped get the film off to a stronger start, and there are jokes (like some fierce projectile vomit) leaned on too heavily at the expense of some of the movie's more subtle humor. But when a sharp, energetic gift like Pitch Perfect lands in your lap like this, when you least expect it, you don't quibble-- you shut up and sing along.