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.