It is my estimation that there are very few people on the fence about seeing a movie about the universe of college a capella. The people who want to see this movie would all but kill to do so — on the other hand there are those who’d rather endure a three-hour documentary on the referendum to criminalize the distribution of lead-based paints. I was hardly in the latter category upon approaching Pitch Perfect. I wholeheartedly enjoyed the seasonal performances of my college’s championship-winning a capella group the Binghamton Crosbys (namedrop). I would happily welcome an influx of musical films to mainstream Hollywood. I really really liked the first season of Glee. I say all this to illustrate how open to the idea of Pitch Perfect I was and how much I really wanted to like the movie. Unfortunately as I would reluctantly acknowledge not long into the picture Pitch Perfect was missing many of its marks. Not all but many.
The movie touts itself not as Glee: The Movie as many on the opposing side are likely to deem it but as something far more self-aware. There are a handful of jokes about the rigid containment of the a capella world’s celebrity with remarks that all the authentically cool kids at the central Barden University exist beyond the confines of the a capella community. Unfortunately while it strives to adopt a self-deprecating attitude toward the tropes of the genre it draws the line at the rejection of the more hackneyed elements of its romantic and interpersonal storylines.
While the story is based in the always-worth-revisiting “be yourself” underdog theme it doesn’t quite execute this idea with full force. The highly talented Anna Kendrick plays Beca a “rebellious” aspiring deejay enticed into the nearly defunct Barden Bellas by well-meaning vet Chloe (Brittany Snow) due to her natural skill for singing but disliked by queen bee Aubrey (Anna Camp) for being just a little too different. But in all honesty she’s hardly different enough to evoke our sympathies. In fact the only outstanding characteristics Beca seems to have is that she’s pretty self-entitled and always a little bit miffed. Still she’s the apple of everyone's eye including the guileless flimsy male lead Jesse (Skylar Astin) who himself is a cherished new member of Barden's rival a capella group the all-male Treblemakers — led by the wickedly obnoxious top dog Bumper (Adam DeVine). Beca and Jesse are meant to found the real emotional crust of the movie; he teaches her about the greats of cinematic soundtracks and about not pushing people away and she... well she doesn't really teach him about anything. Their relationship lacks the real substance that would effectively carry the film based primarily on the fact that they're both cute and microscopically off-center.
And then there are the supporting characters — the Bellas' team of misfits whom we're meant to love. Rebel Wilson leads this pack as the kooky brazen self-decreed Fat Amy. Beside her the sexually-charged Stacie (Alexis Knapp) the quiet psychopath Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) and Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean) whose alluded homosexuality is quite unfortunately the punchline of her character among a few faceless sub-supporting characters. And while the theme does don a sheath of the classic “be yourself” mindset it seems to be more interested in poking fun of these girls and their quirks than it is in celebrating them.
But they do band together they do develop a camaraderie and they do come to compromise their differences in order to better one another and the team. And then comes the final musical number.
See for all of the film's faults there is something it knows how to do: it puts on one hell of a show. As much of a cynical nitpicker as you might be once the Bellas' final performance on the competition mainstage takes way you're bound to enjoy it. Showcasing the individual vocal talents of each of the (primary) singers sewn together in an expertly crafted compilation piece viewers are likely to get a chill or two. This is where Pitch Perfect hits: in its sheer unembarrassed celebration of a capella of music in general and of the girls onscreen. The movie makes the mistake of trying to have it both ways. When it goes for self-deprecation it makes it look all the more unaware of its inherent flaws in plot and character. But in being what plenty of people would be just fine with — an a capella movie that isn't ashamed of loving a capella any more than its over-the-top characters are — it succeeds. Unfortunately this sentiment feels limited to the final performance of the film. But to its credit it's a performance good enough to make up for a whole lot of the stuff that leads up to it.
This review previously appeared as part of Hollywood.com's coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
After adorable but limiting roles in The Office I Love You Man Our Idiot Brother and her biggest part to date Parks and Recreation actress Rashida Jones nabs her meatiest part to date courtesy of her own script.
Celeste and Jesse Forever the brainchild of Jones and writing partner Will McCormick is a romantic comedy that feels perfectly comfortable treading into honest poignant relationship moments. It's obvious Jones co-wrote the movie every beat tailor made to draw out her best qualities. Celeste (Jones) and Jesse (Saturday Night Live's Andy Samberg) are longtime friends a perfect pair who eventually tie the knot and live happily for six years… until their relationship ends in divorce. But even with their impending separation the two can't help but remain best buds. Their friends are critical of the continued companionship but the pair work together to get back in the dating game. The journey forces the former couple to confront the truths and regrets both have harbored since first meeting.
Celeste and Jesse skips the big gags and sappy confessions in favor of grounding its characters in honest (and often uneasy) scenarios. Jones' and McCormick's script captures the kookiness ingrained in long lasting friendships from inside jokes (Celeste and Jesse routinely play a game where they perform sex acts with random objects) to the strange customs of Los Angelenos. Quirk isn't easy to pull off but director Lee Toland Krieger keeps the action intimate and restrained allowing Jones Samberg and the handful of exceptional supporting actors (including Erik Christian Olsen Ari Graynor Elijah Wood and Emma Roberts) to riff and joke without ever going broad.
If the movie was simply a string of hushed comedic sketches Celeste and Jesse Forever would fall into the familiar territory of meandering mumblecore but Jones and Samberg elevate the material with a surprising knack for the dramatic. In one of the film's more emotionally frank moments Jesse delvers a confession that solidifies the couple's dissipating relationship. The normally-goofball Samberg reels it back allowing quiet expression take the stage. The film may not land every intentionally heavy moment with perfect grace but watching two actors play against their established personas gives Celeste and Jesse extra (and exciting) punch.
Celeste and Jesse Forever is evidence Rashida Jones can deliver both behind and in front of the screen. In the right hands her talents can be mined to create a performance both daring and sweet. Celeste and Jesse suggests those "right hands" may be her own.
The problem with a film in which characters stand around philosophizing about the nature of life is the fact they are standing around philosophizing about the nature of life. It can make for a compelling character piece or it can bore you to tears. Sunshine State does a little of both. The story centers on the locals of this island and how the regional real estate developers are looking to change the sleepy beachside community into a manicured resort area. One woman Marly Temple (The Sopranos' Edie Falco) is tired of running her retired father's motel and restaurant. She starts a tentative affair with a landscape architect (Timothy Hutton) but is really looking for a way out--perhaps to sell the business to the developers. The other woman Desiree Perry (Angela Bassett) returns home for a visit to show off her new husband Reggie (James McDaniel). But she has a tense relationship with her mother (Mary Alice) after being sent away by her parents at 15 for getting pregnant. Plus it seems the small black enclave in which she grew up is also being eyed by the developers. As their community is about to change both Marly and Desiree must deal with the sometimes overwhelming weight of family history and family expectations while trying to discover their own paths in life.
Of course this kind of film is an actor's dream--all characters and words with very little action. The array of talent in Sunshine State is vast with many standout performances but unfortunately just not enough substance to keep them all riveting. Falco comes off the best as the bored Marly dealing with her long-winded ornery father (played by the long-winded and ornery Ralph Waite) and her free-spirited mother (played by the delightful Jane Alexander). When Falco is on the screen the film takes on a quirky sensibility that writer/director John Sayles probably intended for the whole film. Her scenes with Hutton are packed full of interesting twists--and she definitely has one of the better lines of the film: "Having sex with me this drunk would be like being at the dentist....You know something's going on in there but you don't know what." Bassett doesn't pull her part off as well. She shows the right emotions as Desiree but somehow her storyline seems forced and the same goes for the supporting players around her. The rest of the cast--and it's considerable--fill in the blanks. Mary Steenburgen as the organizer of the local historical event known as "Buccaneer Days" and Gordon Clapp as her gambleholic husband with suicidal tendencies are also standouts.
Sayles is an eclectic filmmaker to say the least. Obviously a brilliant writer he picks his projects carefully and usually puts his own unique stamp on his films such as the powerful little gem Lone Star and the historical Eight Men Out. The framework and the setting of Sunshine State does set it apart from the rest. The director has a genuine affection for the Florida landscape shooting the entire film on Amelia Island one of the only places in history where blacks were allowed to go to the beach in segregated times. Sayles loves to dabble in the past and with some amazingly beautiful surroundings he is able to capture a certain historical feeling. Yet Sayles veers off from his usual style in how he sets his story. The writing is at times bitingly clever but it seems that Sayles is channeling director Robert Altman by trying to interweave the stories of several characters. Unfortunately he doesn't do nearly as good a job as Altman. With too many cooks in the kitchen you end up concentrating on only the characters that interest you thus tuning out the rest.