There are plenty of movies that "Pitch Perfect" could have been. It might have been a documentary in the "Spellbound" mold, following around the collegiate subjects of Mickey Rapkin's non-fiction book the movie was based on as they compete for national a cappella glory. It may have become a conventional coming-of-age/culture-clash story defined by second-act sentiment, as portrayed just this past January with the groan-inducing "Joyful Noise."
Or it could turn out as it has, with some of those elements present but more predominantly defined and energized by "30 Rock" writer Kay Cannon's irreverent sense of humor. (Echoes of Tina Fey's screenplay for "Mean Girls," anyone?) More to the point: Minute for minute, line for line, "Pitch Perfect" rivals this year's "21 Jump Street" for being the funniest studio comedy since at least 2010's "Easy A," and it lands its many laughs without being nearly as reflexively winky as either.
It's through sheer force of fun (yeah, I know) that one doesn't entirely mind the standard-issue story of Beca (Anna Kendrick), a Barden University freshman and aspiring DJ reluctant to join up with the campus' female a cappella group, The Bellas. She wants to move to LA, but the only way her dad will approve the plan is if she sticks it out one semester and joins at least one club.
Aubrey (Anna Camp) is The Bellas' exceedingly alpha leader — "My dad always says, if you're not here to win, get the hell out of Kuwait!" — who killed the team's previous chances at championship glory by tossing her cookies on stage. Aubrey's insistence on preceding random words with "a ca-" (as in "a cappella") falls in line with the "cheerocracy" talk of the similarly charming "Bring It On." New to the ranks alongside Beca are loud and proud Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), soft-spoken Lilly (Hana Mae Lee) and butch Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean).
Making his feature film debut, "Avenue Q" director Jason Moore sets the tone right from the start, with Universal's studio logo accompanied by an a cappella rendition of its traditional theme, and he does the performance scenes justice while breezing through the requisite plot points. Beca's lit professor dad is disappointed in her active disinterest in attending classes, let alone making friends, and soon enough — sure enough — she falls for nice guy Jesse (Skylar Astin), who happens to belong to the rival team, The Treblemakers, led by the obnoxious Bumper (Adam DeVine). Naturally, Beca's knack for making song mash-ups will prove vital to loosening up The Bellas' rigid routine.
The stuff in between, though, is gravy. There are some sly jabs at the likes of "Glee," though this project may never have been greenlit without its massive popularity. A seemingly desperate reprise to the aforementioned puke gag is then given an amusingly oddball spin, and the off-color commentary provided at every formal competition by John Michael Higgins (because they can't hit the low notes, "women are about as good at a cappella as they are at being doctors") and Elizabeth Banks ("Nothing makes a girl feel like a woman like a man who sings like a boy") is pricelessly written or improvised and breathlessly delivered.
Despite being the group's supposed spark of life, Kendrick is asked to trade in her reliably perky charms for eyeliner and frequent scoffing. If anything, she's the odd one out by virtue of being the least odd of the ensemble. To that end, a fairly funny cast still sees two standouts: Wilson, finally getting a boisterous role that isn't defined first and foremost by doltish behavior as in "Bridesmaids" and "What to Expect When You're Expecting," and relative newcomer Lee, whose every psychotic under-the-breath admission ("I start fires to feel joy") left me in stitches without fail. Bonus points for the film's casual but healthy treatment of gay and fat acceptance; each earns a laugh while emphasizing the difference between the closeted teenage panic in high-school stories and the room-for-everyone spirit of any good college. ("The Perks of Being a Wallflower" pulled off portraying the high school end of things recently, and well.)
While they're hanging out one night, Beca tells Jesse that she doesn't care for watching movies very much because the endings are all the same. I'm not going to pretend that the filmmakers dodge their own bullet in that respect, but by measure of everything leading up to the ending, it hardly seems like such a deal-breaker this time around. Far more often than not, "Pitch Perfect" lives up to its own title.