Saturday, September 18, 2010

Love: Easy A

"High school" genre films are rarely expertly made, even if, some how, they get burned into our collective nostalgia. Easy A looked like it might be that rare transcendental film, one that would put out and finally give us something to remember. But like its heroine Olive (Emma Stone), it hides behind a facade of infamy and greatness, a straight-forward, even almost boring film masked by the immense talent and charisma of its cast.

Said Olive, is a nobody and her story is, as she says herself, the usual cliched coming of age comedy that we're all expecting, beginning when her best friend peer pressures her into admitting that she had sex with a boy from the local community college, when she in fact, did not. Overheard by the leader of the high school Christian Right (Amanda Bynes), rumors quickly spread that Olive is the high school bicycle. Enjoying her new found attention, she agrees to pretend to have sex with the gay Brandon (Dan Byrd), cementing his reputation as a straight stud, and hers as a slut. Embracing her new status and inspired by Hester Prynne, she embroiders red As on her wardrobe, gets paid by a variety of guys at school to pretend to sleep with them, and learns a hard life lesson before everything comes together in a nice conclusion.

Like the exploitation films of the 50's and 60's, Easy A promised a lot to get us in the door, and doesn't deliver. It was supposed to be hilarious and beguiling, even empowering and feminist, breaking out of the teenage box.  But the film gave up all the goods in the trailer, a trailer that if you've seen a movie or T.V show in the last month, has been played into the ground, in effect making the film feel like something you've already seen a million times. Director Will Gluck tries to tell us over and over again, mostly through Olive's narration, that this story, this film, isn't going to be special in the coy way that implies that it's definitely going to be. But he tries too hard, his pacing nearly as awkward as Olive herself, despite the pretty red-haired package, even if there are many hilarious bright spots (my favorite being the continued use of "Pocket Full of Sunshine" and Olive's interactions with her parents).

Although I don't expect a lot in terms of female characters from any movies these days, I did from Olive. Gluck and writer Bert V. Royal seemed to be trying to make her into an empowered girl who takes hold of her sexuality, who makes her own decisions, and isn't afraid to be herself or show her vulnerability. But even though Olive accomplishes some of this by not being afraid to embrace the paradox of being a hot girl with a brain and enough awkwardness to sink even the greatest dating opportunities, it's the nature of her decision to pretend to have sex with her classmates that really makes me hesitant. Time and time again she is initially uncomfortable with the idea of helping these guys, but instantly changes her mind when they give her puppy dog eyes and complain about how nobody understands them and that high school sucks. Instead of being the one making the decisions, Olive is goaded into giving up all of herself to help the needy, victimized males, and effectively becomes the worst of Hollywood female cliches, the victim (by the end she feels put upon and desperate to escape her reputation), the doormat, and the whore. She learns the hard way that women are judged differently, with kudos to Stone for the sincerity and despair which she communicates when Olive realizes that for all this fake sex, that no one has ever asked her out on a real date. Yes, she finds that one guy at the end who loves her for who she is, who really respects her, but it's just not enough. I would have felt much better if she did this to play with the idea of the rumor mill, or even just to get attention, but not because she feels like it's her job to take care of every guy that lacks self esteem.

Were it not for the wonderful cast, particularly Emma Stone whose personality jumps off the screen with what seems to be little effort, this would be a direct to DVD, instant squalor, with a big "B" for boring. Stone is so charming, as is her white knight Penn Badgley and the wonderfully goofy Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive's parents, that you actually do enjoy yourself and forgive a lot of the trite, easy, and safe things that film does.

This is not the "one." Not the Holy Grail of teenage comedies, and not the feminist risk a lot of us were hoping it would be. But it is a safe, cute, and easy to swallow good time whose shallow dip into social commentary is saved by the great, natural comedic actors who elevate into something more like a "B+" for effort, than an easy "A."


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