Friday, January 7, 2011
Director: Will Gluck
Starring: Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Dan Byrd, Thomas Haden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Lisa Kudrow, Malcolm McDowell, Aly Michalka, Stanley Tucci
Running Time: 93 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
There's one glaring flaw in the central premise of Easy A, the latest teen comedy to adapt a literary classic into a modern high school setting, and I'm kind of surprised no one's noticed it. Or maybe they have, but like me, don't care because it gets too many other little things right to dwell on it. Or maybe it just isn't a flaw at all. Maybe we're supposed to believe a high school girl losing her virginity is still big news. A huge scandal in fact. Stop the presses. Yet it's also the movie's biggest asset, because we do believe that in this optimistic world this throwback movie creates for itself full of generally good, well-meaning people, that it could be. We also buy that Emma Stone's character could actually be in high school, be that virgin girl, and no guy would want to date her. Not easy at all, but she pulls it off and the further the story moves away from that initial premise the closer it gets to exploring its full consequences and becoming a rare standout among teen coming-of-age comedies. But the big story here is that in genre where stupidity usually reigns supreme, none of the characters come across as stupid, especially its protagonist, who Stone plays in a star-making performance as the most infectiously likable high school heroine not named Buffy or Veronica.
Narrating her own story via web cam, California high schooler Olive Penderghast (Stone) runs down the series of events that led to her being falsely labeled as the school slut, beginning with her lie to best friend Rhie (Aly Michalka) about losing her virginity to a guy from the local community college. Her made-up story is overheard in the bathroom by the school's religious zealot Marianne (Amanda Bynes) who spreads the rumor like wildfire, making Olive infamous, if not exactly popular, for the first time in her high school career. Thrilled she has any reputation at all, she embraces her perceived exploits with a revealing new wardrobe frequently stitched with a scarlet letter "A" and a cocky attitude to match. But perception and reality blur when her gay friend Brandon (Dan Byrd) needs help in appearing to be straight, getting it in a very physical and public (albeit fake) way. By this time what's true and what's not becomes almost irrelevant as Olive is now basically known as a hooker to her peers and must deal with the unhappy consequences of that notoriety.
Emma Stone's Golden Globe nominated performance kind of sneaks up on you because it isn't apparent right away just how much she has to do and how difficult it is to make it look this natural. It turns out her brief but memorable supporting turns in comedies like Superbad, The House Bunny and Zombieland didn't even give an inkling as to her full capabilities as an actress. Asked for the first time to carry a picture she gives a multi-faceted performance I'd put up against Natalie Portman's in Black Swan in any awards race any day of the week so it's a relief that audiences and critics have duly taken notice of how strong it is despite its placement in the often disparaged teen comedy genre. While Bert V. Royal's clever script does admittedly give her some depth to work with, she has to supply much of it, bringing an insanely likable mixture of wittiness, goofiness, insecurity and confidence to Olive. In a pivotal scene when a date goes bad she has to go through an entire movie's worth of emotions in just a few minutes and nails it. The tone of the film is sometimes all over the map but she's right there to cover for it every step of the way, elevating the kind of material that has made some of the biggest, most talented actresses look like fools even when performed well. To say Stone has officially arrived as a top tier star doesn't even begin to cover it, so just as long as she doesn't do anything crazy like sign up for a 3D Spider-Man reboot, her acting future looks bright.
Despite the film having a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through with the school's overblown reaction to Olive's "scandal," the screenplay's smart, getting so many smaller details right that nearly every other film in this genre routinely botch. A few of the supporting characters are so likable and easygoing at times that they do feel almost too cool or too cleverly written to be believable as actual people but that's okay, mainly because they're not made to look like morons and it's such a rare event when periphery players in a teen comedy are memorable in any way at all. With an all-star line-up of actors, Easy A accomplishes the feat of juggling many supporting characters and sub-plots that never seem like filler. It's rare seeing a teen movie (or ANY movie) with parents (Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci) who are actually clued into reality and supportive of their daughter, but the slice-of-life scenes with Olive and her family are written and performed so well you won't just wish there were more of them, you'll wish you could move in with them. And as someone who references The Bucket List entirely too much in everyday conversation, Tucci's delivery of a joke at that film's expense was greatly appreciated as the comic zinger of the year for me.
The rest of the cast, including Thomas Hayden Church as Olive's English teacher Mr. Griffith (who teaches- you guessed it- Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"), Lisa Kudrow as his guidance counselor wife and Malcolm McDowell as a cranky principal all contribute a lot and are fleshed out really well considering the amount of screen time they're given. You know a film's in good shape when even the stereotypical "gay best friend" isn't just comic relief and is developed enough that we actually kind of care what happens to him. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of Amanda Bynes' annoyingly screechy Marianne, a walking stereotype if there ever was one. In a tired religious fanaticism sub-plot that seems directly ripped from Saved! Bynes mugs and overacts as if she were still in Hairspray. That nonsense starkly contrasts the romantic subplot with Olive and her would-be boyfriend, "Woodchuck" Todd (Penn Badgley), so unobtrusively interwoven into the plot it almost feels invisible. Because both actors are such naturals on screen and the issue isn't shoved down our throats, when they do eventually get together it feels earned.
At one point Olive makes reference to the fact that she wishes her life were a John Hughes movie and we get a montage of '80's films like Say Anything, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Sixteen Candles and Can't Buy Me Love. The most frustrating aspect of Easy A is that in paying tribute to the spirit of those movies it has so many small moments where you think it can break free and match their quality, but it's always just a step behind Stone's comic brilliance. It's also drawn comparisons to Mean Girls but unlike many, I don't think the film has anything substantial or particularly subversive to say about fame or scandal since there isn't much of either present on a big enough scale. But even as the American Pie-type sex humor doesn't always mesh with the sweeter, more innocent tone, it's better at balancing them than could reasonably be expected. Honest and sincere in its intentions to a fault, here's a teen comedy so optimistic and lacking in cynicism that it not only acknowledges the hopeful possibility that high schoolers would be shocked that a classmate is having sex, but also thinks highly enough of them to believe they've actually seen a John Hughes movie.