Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A B+ for "Easy A"

"Easy A" takes place in one of those high school universes where everyone is a walking cliche, from the extraordinarily attractive girl who is supposedly considered plain, to the self-righteous Christian do-gooder with no sense of humor or tact. Rumored sexual prowess can boost the reputation of even the most ungainly adolescent boy, and turn a nonentity like Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) into a magnet for attention.

The film is presented in flashback by Olive, who confesses to the audience, with the help of some home-made title cards, that her recent elevation to the position of school slut is based on a lie. In order to get out of a camping trip, Olive tells her best friend Rhe (Alyson Michalka) that she has a date with a community college student, which quickly snowballs into the rumor that Olive has lost her virginity. Immediately she becomes the center of attention for her fake indiscretions, and Olive finds that she enjoys the notoriety. She keeps the ruse going even though she attracts the disapproving ire of the school's self-appointed moral enforcer, Marianne Bryant (Amanda Bynes), and alienates Rhe. Then Olive stumbles upon a way to put her scandalous reputation to good use, first to shield her bullied gay friend Brandon (Dan Byrd) by pretending to sleep with him, then offering to do the same for many of the school's other outcasts and rejects.

"Easy A" was marketed as a typical raunchy sex comedy, and it was a nice surprise to discover how little raunch actually figured into a fairly ambitious story. The script is weak and uneven in places, but writer/director Will Gluck takes a huge step forward here from his last film, the dismal "Fired Up." "Easy A" hearkens back to the more earnest John Hughes teen movies of the 80s, which are shamelessly referenced several times. However, the film is firmly a product of the digital age, where gossip is transmitted from cel-phone to social network to instant message at the speed of light, and the entire story is framed by Olive's confessional webcast. A neat little recurring visual motif is the use of a series of shots that race through the halls of the high school at alarming speeds from person to person, in order to convey the rapidness at which a particular tidbit of information is spreading. Also, the characters are self-aware and frequently metatextual, especially Olive taking inspiration from Hester Prynne of "The Scarlet Letter," and acknowledging to the audience that such a gimmick is pretty trite.

This a perfectly tailored debut feature for Emma Stone, who seems to be picking up right where Lindsay Lohan left off with "Mean Girls." Though the story is often ludicrous and the character of Olive is hard to swallow at times, Stone has such a charismatic screen presence that it's easy to forgive the film's weaker conceits. She rattles off the ironic dialogue with immaculate comic timing, and can be provocatively sexy or endearingly frazzled as necessary. Though Olive is very savvy to the common tropes of teen comedies, and snarkily skewers many of them, Stone also ensures that she retains a good deal of adolescent impetuousness and vulnerability. In counterpoint to her vamping act, Olive hits it off with the school mascot, Todd (Penn Badgley), in a series of perfectly sweet, romantic encounters. She may be a smart girl who uses knows how to put up a convincing facade of promiscuity, but turns out to be a normal, awkward teenager in the face of real affection.

It's also fun to see a slew of well-cast names filling out the adult roles, including Thomas Haden Church as Olive's favorite teacher, Mr. Griffith, Lisa Kudrow as his guidance counselor wife, Fred Armisen as a local pastor, and Malcolm McDowell as the dour principal. Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are among the film's highlights as Olive's quippy and slightly kooky parents. Their approach to parenting is very hands-off, and though they express concern about her new wardrobe and extra-curricular activities, they let Olive resolve the situation on her own terms. Among the younger actors, no one else really stands out. Alyson Michalka and Amanda Bynes' characters both come off as extremely unsympathetic, but this is due in large part to their caricatured roles.

"Easy A" is not a great movie, but it's head and shoulders above just about everything in the high school comedy and romantic comedy genre these days. I look forward to seeing more of Emma Stone in the future and I hope Will Gluck continues on this upward trajectory.

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