Thursday, September 16, 2010

Easy A: High Marks

Easy A (2010) • View trailer for Easy A
3.5 stars (out of five). Rated PG-13 for profanity and sexual candor, all involving teens
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in the The Davis Enterprise, 09.16.10
Buy DVD: Easy A • Buy Blu-Ray: Easy A [Blu-ray]

Bert V. Royal based his screenplay on one of my favorite mordant sayings:

If you get saddled with a reputation, you may as well live up to it.

Royal's snarky script and the effervescent Emma Stone are the chief delights in Easy A, an engaging, teen-oriented riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. The light comedy speaks volumes about the elusive nature of popularity, high school cliques and unintended consequences.

Mostly, though, it's a choice starring showcase for Stone, who deftly fulfills the promise of her stand-out supporting performance in last year's Zombieland. She's a natural on camera, with a radiant smile and perky disposition that serve her well as this saga's underdog heroine.

Having embraced the dark and slutty side that everybody seems to 
expect, Olive (Emma Stone, right) takes great pleasure in making the
insufferably judgmental Marianne (Amanda Bynes) as uncomfortable 
as possible. Alas, peer pressure eventually will have its consequences.

She also has deft comedy chops and a finely honed sense of line readings, holding her own during witty repartee with a supporting cast of scene-stealers that includes Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, Thomas Haden Church and Lisa Kudrow. That's an impressive roster for a lightweight late-summer entry: all the more reason this film is a delightful surprise.

Stone stars as Olive Penderghast, a whip-smart student at Ojai High School who pales somewhat in the shadow of best friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka, of the pop duo Aly and A.J.). Olive enjoys lively banter with her favorite teacher, Mr. Griffith (Church), although her academic prowess seems to have left her something of an outcast in the popularity and boyfriend departments.

We'll have to limit ourselves to raised eyebrows over the notion that a knockout like Stone wouldn't have boys lined up at her high school locker, but hey: That's Hollywood.

Anyway, Olive's unwillingness to subject herself to a weekend in the company of Rhiannon and her weird, New Age parents prompts a little white lie: She feigns a date. With an actual guy. Named George.

Each detail of which makes Rhiannon's skeptical eyebrows shoot higher.

Then, in order to better sell the fib after the weekend concludes, Olive doesn't object when Rhiannon jumps to the conclusion that her friend's virginity was lost in the process.

All this tumbles out during a conversation overheard by the nosy, holier-than-thou Marianne (Amanda Bynes, a pouty, disapproving hoot), Ojai High's very own Tammy Faye Bakker. Thanks to Marianne, word of Olive's new, ah, "status" spreads like wildfire.

And, to her surprise, people start treating her differently.

Olive enjoys the attention.

Having a "dented" reputation also puts her in the position of helping a friend. Brandon (Dan Byrd) is gay, and at wit's end over the abuse suffered as a result of cruel taunts regarding his sexual orientation. Since this razzing is based on assumptions rather than proof, Brandon decides to postpone his public emergence from the closet until the presumably safer environment of college; he therefore asks Olive to be his "girlfriend" for a very public one-night stand.

Royal deserves credit for carefully walking a fine line with respect to Brandon, and Byrd handles the part with equal precision. Brandon never denies his sexuality; he merely makes a savvy tactical decision to fight this particular battle under better circumstances of his own choosing.

In the meanwhile, if his tormentors are put off by a charade, so much the better.

Olive, weighing the consequences and moved by Brandon's obvious distress, consents. They stage a noisy bedroom romp during a crowded party, with the desired results.

For Brandon, anyway.

Olive ... quickly discovers the drawback of good intentions.

Because word gets out, and suddenly every misfit, sad sack high school guy begs her for a similar "service," each one hoping for a similar boost to his nonexistent rep, each one willing to pay for the privilege. But as their peer status rises, Olive's plummets, burdened by the collective weight of far too many assignations, and far too much disapproval from Marianne and her fellow Christian soldiers.

Stung by the unjustness of it all, Olive tarts up her wardrobe, defiantly sewing a scarlet "A" onto a series of slutty outfits.

Where, we wonder, can all this end?

Director Will Gluck orchestrates the resulting teen angst with a mostly firm hand, and his film certainly belongs in the company of other equally clever high school riffs on classic literature, such as 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You (Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew) and 1995's Clueless (Jane Austen's Emma).

That's the beauty of Royal's script: The deeper Olive gets buried beneath her escalating deception, the more she begins to resemble — and identify with — Hawthorne's Hester Prynne. This fact doesn't go unnoticed by Mr. Griffith; Olive claims malice of forethought, insisting that she has made a project of personally experiencing Prynne's ostracism. Church's deadpan disbelief is priceless.

"Priceless" also is the perfect word for Olive's various conversations with her trusting and nonjudgmental parents — and you gotta love their names — Dill (Tucci) and Rosemary (Clarkson). Their various conversations are a stitch, particularly when either parent expresses mock concern about their daughter's future.

But these aren't wholly superficial exchanges; the banter frequently cuts off in order for either Mom or Dad to demonstrate love and genuine concern. It's a great family dynamic, and Gluck makes it look and sound authentic. We all should have such parents.

Gluck also makes excellent use of Olive's ongoing voice-over, a device used badly in many, many other movies. It works perfectly here, in part because Olive is telling her story via a recorded video blog — we eventually wonder about this candid confession's intended audience — and also because Stone delivers her off-camera monologues with the right blend of resignation, defiance and regret.

But while Royal's script is mostly a smooth journey, he clumsily handles a few bumps in the road.

We never get adequate closure with Marianne, and a subplot involving the school guidance counselor (Kudrow) is a bit distasteful, and also badly resolved. And I'm uneasy about the way Royal drags Huckleberry Finn into this complex brew, particularly with respect to Brandon's eventual fate; it feels like an attempt at laughter for all the wrong reasons.

On the other hand, Royal does much better with cinematic cultural references, particularly when the Olive of hopelessly ill repute pines for a real relationship — a real date — with a guy she really likes, under circumstances that would reflect all the best moments from John Hughes movies, including a pointless but undeniably romantic song and dance number. (Cue several scenes from 16 Candles, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and a few other classics.)

Gluck also pays homage to Hughes with an equally well-selected bundle of pop tunes by the likes of Sweet Thing, the Pussycat Dolls, DJ Laz and others; many of the songs deliciously and hilariously complement the on-screen action, as with "Bad Reputation," "Sexy Silk" and (ahem) the climactic "Knock on Wood."

Bottom line: Easy A has its heart in the right place, delivers a solid moral and boasts several thoroughly engaging performances, starting with Stone. She'll easily parlay this success into bigger and better roles, and she deserves to.

Fun, fun, fun. 

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