Easy A (United States, 2010)

September 18, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Easy A Poster

Most movies about teenagers come in one of two flavors: romantic comedies or sex comedies. Then there are films like Easy A - smart, satirical jabs at aspects of popular culture that defy simplistic classification. These may be set in schools but what they have to say goes beyond those hotbeds of hormones, peer pressure, and academic cramming. Easy A belongs in the company of Election, Heathers, and Mean Girls - all motion pictures that have outlived their theatrical lives because they have unique voices and use them to say something.

The message embraced by Easy A relates to the incestuous relationship between popularity and sleaze - not exactly a surprise when one considers how well tabloids sell and that a cesspool of crassness like Jersey Shore can claim big ratings. People love train wrecks. They love savoring the taste of another person's misery. That's the reason why bottom-feeding "celebrities" attract such attention. The hypocrisy surrounding this cultural phenomenon is not lost on the makers of Easy A, who use high school as a microcosm of the world at large as they dissect what popularity has become and what it really represents.

Easy A doesn't stop with its central theme, but many of its tertiary targets are pummeled less soundly and with mixed results. For example, its jabs at religion feel stale and familiar - we've seen these same holier-than-thou caricatures in dozens of films, and Easy A doesn't do enough with them that's new or interesting to make this aspect of the film worthwhile. In general, however, when director Will Gluck and screenwriter Bert V. Royal decide to launch a fusillade at something, enough of the barbs stick for the point to be made.

Olive (Emma Stone) is as ordinary as a smart, pretty high school student can be. In her words, if she was a ten-story building, Google Earth wouldn't notice her. That all changes, however, with an innocent lie to her best friend, Rhiannon (Aly Michalka). Tired of being thought of as virginal and boring, she tells the other girl that she had a one-night stand with a college guy. Unfortunately for Olive, this "confession" is overheard by the school's resident religious zealot, Marianne (Amanda Bynes), who also happens to be a gossip. It takes less than a period for the news of Olive's sexual exploit, fueled by text-messages, word-of-mouth, and paper notes passed in classes, to make its way through the corridors of academia. After that, when she helps a gay friend (Dan Byrd) establish his "straightness" via a fake (but very public) sexcapade, the snowball effect takes over. Reputation outstrips reality. Olive enjoys the notoriety for a time, but soon learns that the negatives associated with popularity are greater than the benefits.

Easy A represents a coming-out party of sorts for Emma Stone, who is being given her first opportunity to carry a movie. She is unequivocally up to the task, bringing charm, confidence, and self-deprecating wit to the part. The way she plays Olive reminds me of Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls, although, considering how Lohan has become a bigger-than-live example of what Easy A is lampooning, perhaps that isn't the kindest comparison. At any rate, Stone never loses the camera's attention, even when she's sharing the screen with older, better-known veteran actors.

The supporting cast is littered with familiar names. Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci play Olive's loving Mom and Dad. We haven't seen parents this supportive since Juno. Indeed, with nearly every motion picture family displaying the deepest, seediest forms of dysfunction, it's a breath of fresh air to find a daughter who has a great relationship with both parents. Thomas Hayden Church is Olive's favorite teacher, Mr. Griffith, and Lisa Kudrow is his wife, the guidance counselor. Malcolm McDowell, with his frown and glare fixed in place, is Principal Gibbons.

A lot of what transpires during the course of Easy A will resonate with teenagers (who are living through this) and adults (whose memories of high school will take them back). A throw-away romantic comedy has been shoehorned into the story. Its inclusion, like some of the broader humor (such as the "sex scene" between Olive and her gay buddy), seems more tacked-on than organic. It's not awkward enough to detract but it is not seamlessly interwoven. Without it, Easy A would have been a darker experience, so perhaps it needs to be there to keep things from becoming too gloomy.

Easy A provides plenty of nods and connections to '80s movies and music. Say Anything and Can't Buy Me Love are explicitly referenced, but they're not the only examples. Easy A's version of "In Your Eyes" is Simple Minds' "Don't You (Forget About Me)." The song "Knock on Wood" also gets a prime position. (Technically, Amii Stewart's cover, which is the best-known version, was a '70s song, since it reached the U.S. charts in 1979.) Easy A also references, in a rather obvious way, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, with Olive's voiceover providing a scathing review of the Demi Moore film version.

It's often the case that movies like this, which don't follow a cookie-cutter philosophy, fail to find a large audience during a theatrical run. It's too early to say whether that's the case with Easy A but, despite occasional missteps, the film is smart and incisive enough to deserve success at the box office. The marketing campaign is doing the production a disservice by selling Easy A exclusively to teenagers. It is made for and deserves a wider audience. The things it has to say may resound loudest for those in high school but viewers of all ages will recognize those echoes in countless nooks and crannies of pop culture and life in general. Easy A may not be a great movie, but it is a knowing and enjoyable one.

Easy A (United States, 2010)

Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 2010-09-17
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1