Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Surprisingly Engaging Comedy, Will Gluck And Emma Stone Win With "Easy A!"

The Good: Very funny, Good message, Decent allusions, Generally good acting
The Bad: Title cards are annoying, Casting issues
The Basics: When high school student Olive is caught up in a lie, she is dubbed as a slut and she decides to use that to make herself more popular and help less cool students.

One of the general rules in Hollywood is to avoid, whenever possible, working with children and animals. In the new film Easy A, director Will Gluck proves that a wonderful movie may be made with a younger cast, as the retelling of The Scarlet Letter is one of the surprise successes going into the September slump of film releases. The truth is, I went into Easy A expecting a pretty predictable, vacuous comedy that barely had more substance than its trailer. I am proud to admit that I was wrong and Easy A is a wonderfully smart, if sometimes obvious movie.

On the plus side, Easy A is not so obvious that it is unpleasant. From the preview trailers, I had a pretty healthy fear that the movie would quickly turn from a sassy retelling of The Scarlet Letter to a predictable teen romance wherein the protagonist hooks up with the obvious good looking guy. While there is a teen romance subplot late in the film, it in no way overwhelms the storyline and the result is that Bert V. Royal's reimagining of The Scarlet Letter for a high school setting is funny, well-timed and one of the closest-to-perfect films with a predominately teen cast I've seen in quite some time.

At Ojai North High School, Olive Penderghast is slipping under the social radar, which is fine by her. She is overly smart, articulate and has a loving family that supports her. One Friday, to avoid going out with her gossipy friend Rhiannon, Olive lies and tells Rhiannon that she has plans for the weekend that would preclude her from going on a camping trip with Rhiannon's family, who are more earthy and nude than she would like. Olive's lie is brought up the next Monday when Rhiannon demands information on how Olive's supposed date with a college student went and Rhiannon leaps to the conclusion that Olive lost her virginity over the weekend. When Olive is not given the chance to contradict Rhiannon, Rhiannon quickly spreads the rumor around school.

Unfortunately for Olive, she is beset by the evangelical Marianne and her Cross Your Heart club of young evangelicals, who begin harassing her. Responding to a remark by one of those students, Olive is sent to detention and there she is reunited with Brandon, a good-natured boy who is gay and is beaten up for it. In detention, Olive reveals to Brandon that she lied about having sex, but that the rumor mill has suddenly made her accepted. Latching onto that idea, Brandon asks Olive to fake having sex with him so the rumor mill will tag him as straight and he can get through high school. The transaction goes well and soon Olive is faking sex with others in order to get gift cards. Hounded by members of the Cross Your Heart club, Olive's lie soon spirals out of control, having a profound effect on more than just the students at Ojai North.

Easy A is a reimagining of The Scarlet Letter which openly acknowledges the source material. Olive's class is reading Hawthorne's book and when Olive is deemed to be a slut by her peers, she starts wearing an embroidered red "A" on her chest. Bert V. Royal's script is smart enough to not try to pretend to be something truly new and as a result, there is no sense of betrayal for the viewer when the movie has a pretty obvious moral about the state of the grapevine in a high school (and, by extension, the world beyond it). This is not to say that Easy A is without surprises. The (almost) twenty-two year-old Micah from the Cross Your Heart Club picks up an STD, blames it on Olive and the actual source of the disease is an actual surprise for viewers.

Olive's world is populated by interesting characters and as the story unfolds as her confession to a webcam audience, the viewer is drawn to more than just Olive's story. Unfortunately, despite a wonderful performance by Thomas Haden Church, Mr. Griffith's story is not expounded on much beyond his limited interactions with Olive. While that makes sense for a tale that Olive is telling first person, it is less satisfying to the viewer as Mr. Griffith is a scene-stealer and Church's performance is memorable and too brief.

Also on the downside for Easy A is the narrative technique itself. The first person narrative to the webcam is all right, but the annoying title cards which Olive writes up to present (and then reads to the audience) just seem like the work of an amateur. The title cards feel like what they are, an organizational technique separating act breaks. They annoyingly break up the flow and set up a sense of dramatic presentation that ultimately makes no real sense - i.e. Olive complaining about not being asked out on a real date right before she gets a real date (sort of) is more of a dramatic letdown than it is a revelation.

The only other problem I could come up with was some of the casting. Cam Gigandet (James in the film Twilight for those keeping track) is appropriately out of place as Micah, but I was absolutely unsurprised to learn that Penn Badgley - who plays Olive's relationship interest, Todd - was in his mid-twenties. He does not look like a high school student and his performance comes with a confidence that seems overly mature for his character's age.

That said, the rest of Easy A is almost flawless. The dialogue is funny and the simulated sex scene between Brandon and Olive is utterly hilarious. The reversals needed to make a film enduringly funny are genuinely clever, insinuating that Easy A will actually stand up well over multiple viewings (this was the first film in a long time that my wife instantly told me she wanted for her permanent collection as the closing credits rolled). The success of the humor comes largely from having a protagonist who is engaging and smart.

Olive is likable. The viewer identifies with her pretty easily and it is hard not to feel bad for her almost from the beginning. While usually it would seem an annoying conceit that the protagonist simply does not correct the misinformation being started about her, Rhiannon is presented with such an annoying self-centered quality that Olive is not allowed the opportunity to object. Moreover, Olive articulates some wonderful ideas about peer respect (or the lack thereof) early in the film which goes right past Rhiannon, but not the viewers.

The supporting characters are equally interesting, from Mr. Griffith to Olive's parents, Rosemary and her father. Olive's father, played by Stanley Tucci, is liberal, articulate and makes for a reasonable source for much of Olive's wit and charm. Easy A misses an opportunity with Tucci and one finds themselves wishing instead of the commentary on The Bucket List, Will Gluck had expanded the scene between Olive and her father when Olive is altering her wardrobe. When Olive decides to confront her peers by embodying a slut, there is a moment where she has a chance to tell her father everything and that opportunity is lost.

Despite the problem with the casting of Penn Badgley, Easy A is one of those rare films that has a pretty amazing cast that uses that cast remarkably. Badgley is likable as Todd, Amanda Bynes is distinctly unlikable as Marianne and while there are moments that Lisa Kudrow channels Phoebe from Friends, she is able to deliver some of Mrs. Griffith's lines with a real heartfelt sensibility. Dan Byrd makes great use of his scenes as Brandon and his sense of both sarcasm and genuine pain is presented with equal quality.

But ultimately, Easy A hinges largely on Emma Stone. Stone plays Olive and given how she is in almost every scene, virtually every frame of the movie, she has a task that not many young actresses can take on successfully. She does it perfectly, though, and there is not a moment where Easy A is even remotely unpleasant to watch for her performance.  I had only seen Stone perform before in Zombieland (click here for my review!) and she was convincingly different in Easy A. She has a great physical presence, doing more than simply filling out the wardrobe when her character decided to openly tease. Stone's deadpan, sarcastic delivery of some of the movie's best lines ("Swell, guy I've never spoken to.") take what could be a series of more mundane one-liners and fleshed them into a truly viable character.

Easy A earns its PG-13 rating, but adults who want a comedy that is going to provide the most laughs of the autumn film season will find that this is the movie that delivers.

For other comedies banking on a lot of charm or originality, please check out my reviews of:
Going The Distance
Whip It
Ever After


For easy access to all of my movie reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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