Monday, October 15, 2012

Pitch Perfect, Bridesmaids, and the Female VomCom

After seeing Pitch Perfect this weekend, I found that my review of the movie could be summarized in one squeamishly staunch opinion: I hated all that vomit.  Because of an annoying case of emetophobia, I was slightly traumatized by the sudden barfiness of Anna Camp's Aubrey within the first five minutes, and never quite recovered my taste for the movie after that.  Aubrey became sort of a barfing time bomb in her uptight antagonism, and her presence onscreen made me instantly worried what the filmmakers had up their sleeve - or regurgitating out of Aubrey's mouth.  And just as I found myself relaxing into the pleasant lack of puking through the film's middle, there came an extended projectile vomiting scene to bring all that trauma screaming right back to me.

When it was all over and done with, I couldn't help but feel a twinge of disappointment.  I was prepped and ready to love this film!  Female ensemble comedy?  A cappella singing?  Penned by Kay Cannon? Starring Anna Kendrick and Brittany Snow and Rebel Wilson and Anna Camp and and and?  It was like Hollywood planets aligned to create a film for the express purpose of delivering directly to my doorstep with a note reading, "For you" with a little smiley face.  And maybe with a box of chocolates for good measure, which I probably wouldn't eat because who eats food anonymously left on one's doorstep?

But you get my point.  And you understand that going to see Pitch Perfect felt a lot like opening my door, discovering that beautiful package left for me, and realizing it was covered in barf.  So with this twinge of disappointment, I also feel a little twinge of guilt.  This was for me!  I was supposed to love this weird barf-covered delivery!  It's a lady comedy with singing!  And yet, I really couldn't give in and love it wholly and now I am sad.  So, I'm trying to negotiate the unfortunate dissonance between expectation and reality, and of course, all that puking.

It's difficult to mention Pitch Perfect without bringing up the film's clear predecessor - no, not Glee.   Bridesmaids.  The 2011 film kicked down a door for female comedy that refuses to don a "chick flick" label and instead hits notes of broad comedy, buddy comedy, sex comedy, and raunch comedy - all subgenres previously restricted to those dudes in Apatow movies.  And not only did Bridesmaids kick down that door, it strode through and was welcomed with applause.  Commercially and critically successful, Bridesmaids announced to Hollywood what should be (but, annoyingly, isn't) plainly obvious to the rest of the world: women are funny!  Women can be in comedy ensembles without looking like a Cathy cartoon!  Women can make jokes about how female comedy usually looks like it's a Cathy cartoon!  Pitch Perfect follows easily in the footsteps of Bridesmaids: both films feature talented female ensembles; they're both penned by women with strong comedy backgrounds; they both aim to make "female comedy" just "comedy," regardless of the gender of the actors.  They are also marketed the same way, as both movie posters feature the women in a line-up against a gritty backdrop, with expressions reading "don't fuck with us."

And, of course, they both contain a fairly over-the-top gross-out element.  In Pitch Perfect, it's the barfing that eventually leads to a physical brawl for leadership.  In Bridesmaids, it's the girls lunch at a Brazilian restaurant that results in a mass attack of food poisoning at the dress shop.  (And, y'know, Maya Rudolph's Lillian shitting in the street.  In a big, poofy, Disney-princess white dress.)

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect both have dedicated time for gross-out humor and the ensuing antics.  These two films exist to deconstruct traditional gender associations for Big Screen Females.  Characters like Annie Walker are meant to maintain the relatability of a "chick flick" lead, but expand the usual limits by including the awkward and messy realities of modern women.  She swears, she gets drunk, she talks about sex, she has sex, she feels alienated from her best friend, she messes up relationships, she has dreams, she has regrets, she has friends, she makes mistakes, she has good intentions, she acts like an asshole sometimes - not a bitch, an asshole - and she apologizes when she needs to.  She exists independently of a man, but it doesn't mean she's an Ice Queen who refuses love.  She has sex, but she's not a slut/whore/tramp/trollop/hussy/take your pick.  She may not look like what you're used to seeing in high-gloss onscreen females, but she's ultimately real, and relatable.

Furthermore, the relationships in these films are meant to redefine the boundaries of traditional onscreen female dynamics: in both Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect, there are women who are friends, women who are at odds because of ideology, women who don't get along, women who make out with each other, women who love each other, women who respect each other.  Both films pass the Bechdel Test with repeated and sustained ease.  Characters like Melissa McCarthy's Megan and Rebel Wilson's Fat Amy are subverted away from body self-consciousness and towards brassy self-confidence, both of them generating comedy in their characters as opposed to having comedy derived from their character's weight.  These are active characters, active women, engaged in the narrative in all its messy glory, and we're finally at a place where people will pay money to see these three-dimensional and empowered women onscreen.

So it only makes sense that this deconstruction of traditional expectations for big screen ladies extends in parallel to the types of comedy onscreen women engage in.  And here comes all the barfing.  Gross-out humor is usually reserved for male-dominated comedies; the "raunch-com" of Judd Apatow is a commercially successful formula: romance for the women, raunchy comedy for the guys.  Women are rarely included in the low-brow humor, because it's simply not "ladylike."  She's never in on the joke - the famous semen-as-hair-gel scene from There's Something About Mary is a classic example.  It's a guy-specific masturbation joke that includes Mary only insofar as she's completely clueless as to what the joke is.  She puts semen in her hair thinking it's hair gel, and Ted is embarrassed about it but can't bring himself to say something, and all the while we're laughing hysterically as Mary cheerily goes about her date with her hair stiffened into a ridiculous, gravity-defying swoop.  Mary is simply an object in that joke.  She's not the subject.  She's not the barfer, the masturbator, the one exuding body fluids in any way.  (Women get tears.  That's the one body fluid we're allowed to secrete onscreen.  In action movies we are sometimes allowed to secrete blood, as long as it is blood spilled so the male hero can avenge us or protect us.  Also, I'd just like to apologize for using the word "secrete."  Twice.)

On the one hand, I love the idea that Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect are decreeing "female comedy" mere "comedy" with the inclusion of male-ascribed body humor.  (Or bawdy humor.  Who didn't love Megan's in-flight seduction of Air Marshal Jon, or Stacie's casual reference to her own vagina as not only a hunter but a male one at that?)  But frankly, I'm not really a body humor type of audience member.  Body humor involves a kind of outrageousness to it, which, combined with the usual cringe factor, doesn't quite tickle my fancy.  Also the severe emetophobia probably doesn't make me a great candidate for barf-related chuckles.  Which is fine; it's awfully presumptuous to expect that all female-led films will cater exactly to my tastes.  But the cynical side of me wonders: does the specific effort of Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect to include gross-out humor really break gender norms, or is it merely a way to somehow "validate" the movie as a "real" comedy and not just a "chick flick?"  It's as though the expulsion of body fluids is a badge of honor, somehow.  It seems to say, loud and proud, "We're not that kind of movie," and purposefully distances itself from being labeled with the "chick flick" target of ridicule.

Pitch Perfect in particular seemed to have this attitude more than Bridesmaids, confusing the words "chick flick" with "movies with feelings."  Perhaps skittish about being compared to their show choir counterpart, the overly-saccharine and heavily-messaged trainwreck that is Glee, Pitch Perfect chose instead to undercook their emotional moments.  After all, the "being different is what makes us better" theme, however wonderful, is nothing new - especially in a post-Gaga world.  Sometimes, this express decision worked for Pitch Perfect.  It was refreshing to avoid the lame suspense of a "who's going to win the championship?" moment with an overblown confetti payoff, which the film skipped completely.  It was equally as refreshing to see the love-interest-as-competitor conflict between Anna Kendrick's Beca and Skylar Astin's Jesse underplayed with minimum blowout.

But I do think this insistence to avoid stereotype and schmaltz came at something of a price to the film's structure, relationships, and thematic success.  For one, Chloe's approach of Beca as a possible recruit for the Barden Bellas was never paid off.  Chloe got right up in Beca's face and said, "I think we're going to be fast friends."  And then they never spoke to each other again.  In fact, no one was really friends until the last second, when it was time to come together for the championships.  The entire middle part of the film dragged out the conflict between Aubrey and Beca, and Chloe, who was in a position to actively progress this conflict, was almost cut out completely.  Instead of removing Aubrey from her position as dictator of the Bellas and allowing new conflicts to arise in the progression of Beca's change, the whole second act consisted of them singing "I Saw the Sign" over and over and over again.  It was maddening.  Why string out one joyless and one-dimensional conflict over the stretch of your movie?  This makes no sense to me.  I'm pretty sure I audibly groaned in the theater when we had to hear the "I Saw the Sign" mashup for the third time.  I know it was the intended audience reaction, but I seriously won't listen to that mashup on the soundtrack.  That is how much the movie made me dislike it.  

Of course, this all boomerangs back around to the barf.  For every time that "I Saw the Sign" made an appearance, I was immediately on High Barf Alert.  And when the filmmakers finally, finally remembered that Chloe was a character and also that they had a plot to get on with, right before the film's conclusion, they decided to return to the puke motif.  As the leadership of the Bellas crumbled and multiple members made a bid for the throne, Aubrey threatened to lose control and then projectile vomited all over the floor.  And then Beca walked in and they all decided to have a happy sharing circle, as the movie finally got to the point I'd been waiting for since the story's inciting incident: Becam joining the Bellas.  Except, like my doorstep delivery, it was covered in barf.  Every ounce of emotional payoff I'd been waiting for in the bonding scene was completely pointless because I could not believe they were having their Kumbaya moment six feet away from a monster puddle of vomit.  It must have smelled foul in there.

It's this express choice by Pitch Perfect to skirt away from valid emotional setup and payoff by pairing it with vomit humor that annoys me.  Bridesmaids told the story of a woman and her relationship with her best friend that was changing beyond her control, and it did so with emotional poignance.  You could even argue that the core of that film is the love story between Lillian and Annie.  But Pitch Perfect?  What exactly is the story being told?  It wasn't really the story of a group of girls choosing to be different and reaping the benefits.  It wasn't really a coming-together story.  It wasn't even really a nuanced story about relationships, or a cliché about how this one girl changed the face of the Bellas forever.  At most, it was a movie about Beca learning how to not be so emotionally constipated and try, for once in her life. And that story was split evenly between the Bellas and the subplot with Jesse, the latter of which received more emotional attention, progression, and pacing.  Pitch Perfect passes the Bechdel Test, but only in a crunch of numbers; the fear of being too "chick flick" sentimental seemed to swing any emotion away from the all-female Bellas and, ironically, into a rather basic guy-and-girl love story.

So the vomit is disappointing to me on a level that goes beyond my mere phobia.  It seemed to be included in the movie as a pointed and over-the-top signifier that this wasn't just a "chick flick," and was wielded in a way that precluded any moment of rest for emotional payoff or significance.  In fact, emotional beats tended to belong to the Beca-and-Jesse love story, which, when paired with the insistence to avoid female-centric emotion, sours me from the film.  Not unlike its main character, the movie seemed to not only be allergic to feelings, but completely ignorant of them.  So while Pitch Perfect had rhythm and song, it didn't really have a lot of heart.  It actively refused to go there.  And regardless of gender stereotypes, I want all of my movies to have heart.  Somehow instead all I got was a lot of barf.


  1. This was one of the best reviews I've read. I too couldn't fully enjoy because of the barfiness of it all. I started it on DVD and immediately stopped it after the first puke. I got online to see how bad it gets and am thrilled to find your review.

  2. God why didn't anyone warn me there would be a puking scene. I am really sad that I couldn't enjoy the movie because of it. If someone could cut out the vomiting scene and do a descretion shot for me, then I could enjoy the film.

  3. When I saw Pitch Perfect, I left the theatre feeling kind of underwhelmed and this review perfectly explains why. For all its delightful moments of offbeat humour, the movie really was lacking in a lot of heart and I totally agree that the movie missed out on some great opportunities to be better than it was. Anything other than a rehash of their "I Saw the Sign" mashup would have been a narrative godsend and it was a shame that they didn't feature Chloe's character more, seeing as she could have easily progressed the story by mediating the conflict between Aubrey and Beca.

    And like you, I would have happily enjoyed the bonding scene if only it had happened earlier in the movie (oh man, waaay earlier) and if it hadn't followed so quickly on the heels of something so gross-out and repellant. Sigh.

  4. Ahh I have the same phobia! About to go see this movie... so happy I read this review so I know what I'm getting into. At least it won't come as a shock now.

  5. Yes I have this phobia too and my friend has the strongest stomach ever and she told me never to watch this movie because it gave her a panic attack! She said it is pretty full on ecspecially cause some girl does snow angels in it! Awesome reveiw!

  6. I have the same phobia and I'm glad I found this review before watching. I'll be sure to skip those parts of the movie! And I'm all for breaking traditional gender roles, but body/body fluid humor always makes me cringe, regardless of who it's coming from.

    Gross-out humor has its place in comedy, but I feel like putting it in all the new non-chick flick female comedies is a bit much. If this is what directors feel is necessary to be successful in the comedy biz, then I am worried as to what is to come in the future of comedy.

  7. What I want to know is where did all this "WE NEED MORE VOMIT" nonsense come from? It's to the point now that I refuse to watch any drama where I know before hand that there's on-screen puking (e.g. Angela's Ashes) or any new comedy or because they all have to incorporate graphic spewing in the storyline or else, I dunno, it's substandard? True, this is an extremist view but it seems the only counter possible this Clockwork Orange forcefeeding frenzy Hollywood is embarked upon. This crap has even infiltrated network TV--I was watching an episode of L&O:SVU and a perp runs over to empties his guts into a corner garbage can on camera. How did this happen? There's gotta be some kind of sick fetish appeal going on because it's all too prevalent. And I dare anyone to point out any film or tv scene that would have lost its impact if the liquid wasn't shown. I don't mean one where the puking is the setup (e.g. Stand By Me) or punchline (e.g. Forty-Year-Old Virgin). I'll even offer a counterexample: in The Godfather original novel, Puzo describes Woltz puking at the sight of his prized horse's bloody head in his bed; in the movie Coppola simply had the actor screaming in horror. Do you honestly believe that one of modern cinema's most memorable scenes would have been in any greater if Woltz leaned over and hurled all over his night stand? Thank you.

  8. A friend of mine who knows of my vomit phobia, warned me not to see Pitch Perfect -- I was incredibly disappointed because it's so up my alley. I listened to her and haven't seen it but was just reconsidering when I found your review which confirmed that it's a no-go for me. That would seriously take all the enjoyment out of it. I completely agree with what some of the commenters have been saying about why and when did vomiting become something we need to see on screen?! When did that become entertaining?? I can sense a vomit scene a mile away and always cover my eyes and I can't tell you how often it happens - feels like nearly every movie or decent tv show has at least one of them. When it's short and sweet, I can deal and it doesn't completely ruin the experience but, when it's as much a plot point as it seems to be in Pitch Perfect, it makes it unwatchable for me. Truly bummed.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...