Saturday, 29 December 2012

How do you keep the music playing?; Or, Notes on why aspects of Pitch Perfect exasperated me

But first, an obiter dictum of sorts...

Last year the somewhat sweet (if lazy) Friends with Benefits left me with a massively bitter taste in my mouth. Sure, the leads and the supporting cast (hey, Patty Clarkson) were as affable as could be but the concept on which the film rested was less pleasant. That film presented itself as anti-romantic comedy of sorts. Dylan and Jamie, the friends at the helm, were not going to have stereotypical meet-cutes and fall in love hazily like the romantic comedy genre had deigned. And not content to just telegraph that to the audience Will Gluck and company were intent on hitting this point home (once, twice, thrice) by having the concept emphasised by having a running gag of a film within the film – a clichéd romantic comedy with Rashida Jones and Jason Segel – where all the disparaging things about “clichéd romantic” comedies would be underlined to stress just how “cool” and “avant-garde” Friends with Benefits was. I’m not sure if it was part of the joke (the film never seemed self-aware enough for me to believe it was) but the it’s perhaps no great surprise that the dénouement of Friends with Benefits was such that the same comedy tropes made mock of were the same ones needed for the film’s climax. And, ultimately, for all the niceties it engendered the entire film leaves you with a sour taste that’s difficult to get rid of. Perhaps the entire film would have been less off-putting if it avoided making mock of its genre and simply allowed itself to be. 
Pitch Perfect is possibly a better film and probably a more satisfying viewing experience, but the reason I include the Friends with Benefits preamble is because this film rests on much of the same conceits as that. The stakes are set up quickly. The Barden Bellas (from Barden University) are an all-female a cappella group with a target on their back. It’s especially difficult for female a cappella groups to win at the Inter Collegiate A Cappella Championship and the group is already reeling from an embarrassing loss at the previous competition which saw an untimely explosion of vomit. Clearly, the Barden Bellas needs to up their game. Enter the perpetually annoyed Beca who wants to be neither at college nor in an a cappella but somehow gets roped into the group. And, like with typical event films the group eventually learns to rally around each other while staunchly making their quest for victory.
That aspect of the film’s plot, though well-worn, is not the directly problematic one. True, the film’s debt to any other singing/dancing/running/sport competition film is clear (the fingerprints of Bring it On are especially visible) and, truly, if in a quest to turn competitive a cappella singing into something of dramatic worth then there’s a fine, albeit familiar, film to go through. But Pitch Perfect can’t be that film for me especially because of how mean-spirited its funny bone is. Employing a cyclical comparison to Bring it On is reductive, but I don’t think I can blame myself there when Pitch Perfect constantly recalls the earlier film. For example, it constantly employs the same cheer-culture ideology of Bring it On with the titbits of a cappella vernacular ranging from “aca-awkward” or “aca-politics”. And, if you’re going to invoke the spirit of Bring it On, dealing with the dangers of raising a poltergeist are unavoidable. To use Bring it On as the simplest example of explaining a principle issue with Pitch Perfect consider the divergence in protagonists.
I believe Craig (Dark Eye Socket) in his tweet said it best when (of Kendrick’s Beca) he wrote: “Why Anna Kendrick's dull (& SO cool, SO right, SO worthy) char. was lead is a mystery. She had 0 charisma or personality here.” Ding. Why, in a film which – ostensibly – hopes to celebrate the world of a cappella have the lead be a snarky, quip-giving, sullen girl? Pitch Perfect needs its lead to be a denizen of the a cappella world and not a native because it’s never truly comfortable taking pride in the potential dorkiness of its a cappella roots. Obviously, it becomes difficult to mock something if your lead has those traits. But with Beca’s constant looks of disdain to those around her, Pitch Perfect is able to consistently view everything through a consistently (if vaguely) cynical lens.

It’s because, whatever its intentions are the film seems more intent on mockery than examination. Ponder on it for a moment, what other significance does the derisive commentary from the competition commentators (Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins are occasionally funny, however) have than to poke fun at everyone who appears on stage? It’s one of the meta-moments of the film, in fact. Banks, as a producer of the film, only represents how the creators instead of investing in examining the plight or humour of the situation only care to force the characters to trot out onstage only to be snidely derided. Because Beca’s lead is the only player considered with true estimation everyone around her is caught playing into their stereotypes. So, even as the film is about a cappella singing – the characters who love a cappella singing are resolutely mocked. I’ll be honest, the ghost of Glee is not a sacred or insurmountable bar and teenage/young adult focused musicals did not begin with it. But I don’t think I’d be reaching to say that Pitch Perfect’s summons the spirit of Glee in various aspect. It’s done in the same backhanded mocking way which most of its humour emanates from to the point of “This is not a film of a singing competition where personal issues will be solved” (a character disparagingly says something to the effect) so, imagine my surprise when that’s exactly what happens.

Of course the problem inherent in it going against its own aforementioned themes works because, at least, when Pitch Perfect sings it gets better. Not completely, though, for even though vocally the film is pleasing it annoys that within the fabric of celebrating a cappella singers the final big song spectacle of the Bellas is not even an a cappella rendition. But, the elements are such that when the songs take off (a personal highlight is the an eleven o’clock hour mash up the girls do) it’s difficult to feel too embittered about the story arcs which exasperate. Alas, though, the music cannot keep playing forever and when in that final Bellas number a well-placed song seems to solve all romantic issues, I groan. Not because there is something expressly wrong with that, but I thought we couldn’t sing our way through any social issue like any run-of-the-mill high-school club? Why mock something in another art form that you will fall prey to in the long run?
I’d imagine it’s a rule of thumb. If you will deliberately recall certain aspects of another artwork you must either wholly deconstruct it in your satire or top it with your aptitude and Pitch Perfect only becomes more problematic because even as in that same breath where the audience is told “There’s none of that shit here. That’s highschool, this is real life”, the characters engage in a series of behaviours which are hardly collegiate in their sensibilities. If my single bone with The Perks of Being a Wallflower was that the high-schoolers seemed to be dealing with collegiate issues then Pitch Perfect is the reverse. The characters, because they are so bound by their stereotypes, play as takes on teenagers and not college-level adults. (The running “joke” of whether one of their team-members is or isn’t a level annoys not because of how gauche it is, but just because of how excessively unnecessary it all seems.) And, it’s a shame because I’d be intrigued to see a movie where Rebel Wilson is allowed more to do than constant ribbing (although, as the cast MVP I don’t complain when she’s on-screen). And, it’s an especial marvel that Anna Camp sacked with a particularly problematic character manages to come out of it all not covered in bile. (I’m not above vomit jokes either, it would seem.)

But, it all returns me to my initial gripe with Friends with Benefits; only now my gripe has grown to full-blown annoyance. Whereas Gluck was (poorly) mocking a genre Pitch Perfect is mocking its own characters and not sweetly either (see Damsels in Distress for satirical humour done without the meanness). Pitch Perfect wants to latch on to the outsiders but is content to latch on to them only inasmuch as they provide fodder for jokes. And, maybe with a different pair of lens I’d be willing to say that all its self-reflexive mockery is just a microcosm of the human inclination but Pitch Perfect seems neither self aware or wise enough to be as discerning.

Anna Kendrick in Pitch Perfect: C
Rebel Wilson in Pitch Perfect: B
Anna Camp in Pitch Perfect: B-
The Music: B/B+  
Pitch Perfect: C-

Clearly I was unable to love Pitch Perfect, but I know many were. Was its meanness an issue for you? 

1 comment:

The Kid In The Front Row said...

Nawwww man, I loved this movie!