GRADED ON A CURVE Stone’s scarlet letter is more likely to stand for “acerbic” than “adultery."
The tagline of Easy A is “Let’s not and say we did.” Too bad that also describes the filmmakers’ approach.
For a teen comedy, Easy A talks a good game. It tries to convince us that it’s a vicious skewering of PC pieties and high school hypocrisies; that it’s fiercely honest and articulate; and that it’s not like other teen movies. “John Hughes did not direct my life,” declares our heroine and narrator, Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone). The script drops disparaging references to Twilight, Sweet Valley High and “Gossip Girl.”
But when it comes time to put up or shut up, Easy A turns out to be as genuine as Olive, whose lying drives the plot. It’s not particularly taboo breaking, nor does it offer a refreshingly realistic alternative to the clichés. Director Will Gluck and writer Bert V. Royal seem to be trying for both the underlying sweetness of a Hughes flick and the cold-blooded perversity of Heathers. Though the movie has its moments, most of them thanks to Stone, it achieves neither.
The problems start with the premise. Someone must have thought that, if Emma set in a modern high school gave us Clueless, The Scarlet Letter translated to the world of webcams would give us ... something. After all, teens are still forced to read the Hawthorne classic, right?
Thing is, unlike Hester Prynne, Olive isn’t a real sexual transgressor. She’s a dateless virgin who makes the mistake of telling her big-mouthed friend she “did it” when she didn’t. Next thing Olive knows, her school’s rumor mill is churning, and a clique of fervent fundamentalists is praying for her. With her reputation already besmirched, Olive becomes the go-to girl for fat, shy or closeted boys eager to prove their manhood. They give her gifts, and she allows them to tell everyone they got “favors” in return.
Does this sound like it’s happening in 2010, or 1960? Sure, double standards still exist, and the word “slut” packs a punch. But modern California is not puritan New England, in case the script’s constant stream of PG-13 cussing and innuendo left you in doubt. Furthermore, even back in 1984, Molly Ringwald didn’t think twice before giving her panties to that geek. The kids in Fast Times at Ridgemont High were having, well, fast times.
There’s a weird disjunction between the lack of actual teen sex in Easy A and all its naughty talk. Maybe this says something about Internet culture, where people can (and do) say anything without needing to translate words into RL action. Still, the script never offers a plausible reason why Olive’s initial (imaginary) unchasteness is such a scandal — even to the fundies, who appear to have escaped recently from Pleasantville.
Like its premise, much of the movie’s comedy feels forced. Stone singlehandedly keeps scenes moving with her repertoire of grimaces, eye rolls and groans. She seems more like a 25-year-old chain-smoking standup comic reenacting high school than an actual high schooler, but that’s OK. As a teacher, Thomas Hayden Church also supplies some choice bits. His anti-Facebook speech is worth seeing just for the bemusement.
If nothing else, Easy A proves that John Hughes lives on. (The film’s romantic moments are pinched unabashedly from Sixteen Candles; its credits roll to “Don’t You [Forget About Me].”) But it’s sad to see a film that purports to be a hard-edged, contemporary satire dissolve into Gen X nostalgia. As teen comedies go, this one’s far from awful. Just don’t expect it to have those ’80s movies’ staying power.