The 2012 college a cappella comedy “Pitch Perfect” (now on DVD) is a nice snapshot of youth culture as it features some of the expected cliques and snobbery — but not too much. When a “Star Wars”- and magic-loving geek wants to join the campus kings, the Treblemakers, the frontman dismisses him as a nerd, but the joke is written all over the screen: The a cappella guys themselves are nerds of a sort. But formerly out-of-the-mainstream activities like a cappella, show choirs or glee clubs no longer carry the stigma they used to, thanks largely to TV’s “American Idol” and “Glee,” and the intelligently written “Pitch Perfect” reflects this.
Meanwhile, the crazy-people-in-love dramedy “Silver Linings Playbook” (which expanded to theaters nationwide this past weekend) ends with a climactic dance competition. Again, reflecting the widespread popularity of TV dance shows like “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars,” this is not the cultish activity it used to be. Oddly, if writer-director David O. Russell was aiming for a bit of indie-cred quirkiness by having the drama boil over at a dancing competition, he might have fallen a bit short because dance is no longer a niche thing.
Although it’s been hyped as one of last year’s best films, I found “Silver Linings Playbook” to be a featherweight effort. It’s set in Philadelphia and touches upon another competitive endeavor that brings people together yet also causes rifts — football, in this case the Eagles. Philly is notorious for having some of the most unruly fans in sports — and Russell gives a nod to this — but mostly the Eagles are a would-be outlet for family bonding between the superstitious gambler played by Robert De Niro and his son, Pat (Bradley Cooper), who just got out of the mental ward for treatment of bipolar disorder.
Pat’s budding friendship with the also-kinda-nutty Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) — who is mourning her husband’s death and who lives in a small house/dance studio behind her folks’ place — is cute in a breezy way, as most of their conversations take place while jogging. Pat — living in his parents’ attic for the time being — wants to jog alone but Tiffany keeps popping up on his route.
The “look how crazy he is” and “look how crazy she is” scenes are a bit on the expected side, and although Cooper is a fine leading man, I think he’s too bright-eyed to really read as crazy and troubled (but I do enjoy his lack of conversational tact). Lawrence has a dark beauty that makes her more fittingly mysterious (also, women are always harder to figure out than men, in movies and in life). Their continually negotiated relationship — she’ll deliver a letter to his estranged wife if he agrees to be her dance partner — has momentum to it. But, although De Niro is good as the dad, there’s a repetitiveness to the scenes of him asking his son to watch the Eagles with him. (Interestingly, there isn’t a frame of gridiron action in the movie, although the name-dropping and Pat’s DeSean Jackson jersey and the use of the 2011 season as a narrative device give “Playbook” a football flavor.)
“Pitch Perfect,” written by “30 Rock’s” Kay Cannon, is the better film, even if it’s not awards bait. The dialog — a stylized but honest reflection of how young people talk — crackles (although the word “aca-scuse me” pops up one too many times). It has a sense of its own silliness, as reflected by the media commentators (!) at the singing competitions played by Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins. The latter has a tendency to lapse into some Brent Musburger moments when analyzing the Barton College Bellas, the all-female rivals of the all-male Treblemakers at the same school.
The characters are absurd but likable, including Anna Camp’s frontwoman Aubrey, whose nerves sometimes lead to explosive barfing on stage; Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy, whose offbeat brand of self-confidence is reflected in the nickname she gives herself; and Brittany Snow’s Chloe, who over-enthusiastically scouts new talent in the dorm shower in the form of Anna Kendrick’s Beca, who really would rather work in the technical side of music — she has a knack for mash-ups.
It won’t surprise anyone that “Silver Linings Playbook” is more of a character piece than a dance movie, but it is somewhat surprising that the characters and humor ultimately come through stronger than the singing and choreography in “Pitch Perfect.” The stage numbers aren’t boring (although I don’t need to hear Ace of Base’s “I Saw the Sign” ever again; that’s part of the point, admittedly), but it’s notable that the stuff in between doesn’t feel like filler. From a distance, it’s somewhat rote — we’re talking about the usual love stories and following of one’s dreams — but the plot progresses with a nice rhythm.
Ultimately, despite flirting with a “Garden State” feel, “Silver Linings Playbook” falls short of being a classic because its rhythms are a little bit messy — but it’s still worth a rental at least. “Pitch Perfect,” though a less serious film, strikes the right notes more consistently.