Pitch Perfect: Back to School Isn’t Usually This Much Fun

In this raunchy comedy set in the world of competitive collegiate a cappella (yeah, that's a thing), Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson and Elizabeth Banks hit all the right notes

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Universal Pictures / Everett

Hana Mae Lee (left), Rebel Wilson (blonde, left), Ester Dean (pink hair) and Anna Kendrick (center)

Anna Kendrick is cast against type as a girl too cool for school in director Jason Moore’s Pitch Perfect, a spirited, irreverent and hugely fun comedy set in the competitive world of collegiate a cappella. Beca wears fierce boots, no pastels and multiple earrings in the non-fleshy part of the ear that suggests a high pain threshold and a dedication to projecting a tough image. Her goal is to become a music producer, but her professor father, a fan of academics, has negotiated a deal with her. She spends her freshman year at the college where he teaches and if she doesn’t like it, then he’ll help her move to LA.

The lone condition is, Beca has to join a club at the fictional Barden College, located somewhere in the Southeast. That way dad will know she’s participating in campus life, rather than just enduring it while doing as she pleases, which is mainly mixing music on her laptop. Between this paternal pressure and some peer pressure from a girl who hears her singing in the shower—Kendrick has a very pleasant voice—Beca ends up in an a cappella group called “The Bellas.” Natalie Keener, Anna Kendrick’s character from Up in the Air, would have dug the Bellas, but few others would. They dress like flight attendants, right down to the jaunty scarves, and are run by a snooty prom queen type named Aubrey (Anna Camp, who maybe the Nellie Olesen of the 21st century). Normally the Bellas wouldn’t lower their standards to anyone as “alternative” as Beca, but graduation rates and a mini-scandal have left them desperate for new members. They even take on Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), who calls herself that so that “twig bitches” like Aubrey and her sidekick Chloe (a delightful Brittany Snow) “don’t do it behind my back.”

(SEE: What Anna Kendrick’s Internet addiction is)

Beca is adamantly not a joiner, but Pitch Perfect is a tale of conversion, of rigid people on both sides of the fence—that is, traditional and alternative—loosening up and coming together for the sake of…musical victory. The Bellas want to win the national championship of a cappella. That’s really what it’s about. Yes, there’s some business about friendship, but that shimmies into the plot too late to take seriously. Especially since the movie has been so resolutely raunchy (vomit has never been used so extensively) and politically incorrect. Screenwriter Kay Cannon, who adapted Mickey Rapkin’s nonfiction book about a cappella competitions, makes everyone a target: Germans, lesbians, magicians and especially Asian Americans, represented by Beca’s unfriendly, anal roommate and a hilariously soft spoken member of the Bellas (Hana Mae Lee). Unlike television’s Glee, which it does bear comparison to, Pitch Perfect is free of earnestness and messages of social responsibility. You leave it wanting to sing and dance. I’m not sure of the individual talents of the performers, but the point is the way they sound collectively, harmonizing, whether on stage or in a friendly a cappella-off on a Saturday night on campus, which is never less than delightful.

(READ: About James Poniewozik’s continuing Glee ambivalence)

There’s a love interest for Beca, Jesse (Skylar Astin), who also sings and dances but in the Treblemakers, a much hipper, boy version of the Bellas. Jess is appealing in a refreshingly nice guy kind of way, not alpha, kind and warm. There’s a sense of decency about his attraction to Beca; he’s a little bit Andy Hardy and Pitch Perfect is at its core an old fashioned let’s-put-on-a-show story. That’s echoed by the sense of the movie as something spontaneously but smartly thrown together by born performers. Superbad’s Christopher Mintz-Plasse shows up to lead the auditions for Barden’s four a cappella teams, shot montage-style. Otherwise, Mintz-Plasse has no scenes, suggesting he was doing a favor for someone by showing up on set for a day. Ditto for Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, who play Gail and John, the Christopher Guest-style deadly serious commentators following the competition, and nearly steal the show without interacting with anyone but each other (Banks produced, so technically she was doing herself a favor).

(SEE: Anna Kendrick in TIME’s Great Performances gallery)

Under Beca’s influence the rebooted Bellas slowly creep toward breaking their ladylike traditions (like Glee‘s Mr. Schuester, Aubrey favors old-school hits, not quite at the “Going to the Chapel” level, but their version of Ace of Base’s “The Sign” is very staid), incorporating hybrids of older hits and contemporary music. They do great things with a remix of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and even let Fat Amy be front and center. If you saw Bridesmaids or Bachelorette, you know what to expect from Wilson; if not, try to keep up; the woman is a comic savant. She’s so cheerily impish that even when it’s not entirely clear what she’s saying—which is often, between a tendency to mumble and her Aussie accent—she gets a laugh. There’s a running joke involving the first two syllables of “a cappella” being folded into other phrases—Aubrey favors “aca’scuse me”—and it’s the kind of thing that could get old very fast. But Wilson, chiming in with a wry “aca-ward”  and “aca-believe it,” has such great delivery that allows the joke to soar when it could so easily flail. Her timing is, please forgive me, aca’wesome.

So is Kendrick’s. She has a history of providing snappy comic relief in supporting roles, starting with her mean girl turn way back when in her film debut in 2003’s Camp, another movie involving singing and dancing (skills she’d honed on Broadway as a tween). She brought a very specific hard edge to perkiness in Up in the Air, a performance that netted her an Oscar nomination at a time when she was mostly known for her role as Bella’s funny friend in the Twilight franchise. She was so convincing as the chilly little efficiency expert Natalie that in 2009 it would have been considered a leap for her to play someone as sexy and cool as Beca, who can rap and deck a guy. But she’s been working her way to this kind of stardom, from 50/50, where she showed a softer side, and even the dreadful What to Expect When You’re Expecting, where she had the most thankless role but still brought a little zip to it. In her other fall release, End of Watch, she’s Jake Gyllenhaal’s dream girl. Kendrick is one to watch; there may be no limit to her versatility.

READ: Richard Corliss on End of Watch.