'Easy A' Gets Failing Grade
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The list of teen sex comedies/romances based on canonical works of English and American literature is a small but honorable one. We all recall the wit and charm of Amy Heckerling's 1995 "Clueless," which seamlessly and gracefully grafted the plot of Jane Austen's "Emma" to a contemporary Valley Girl comedy of manners and mores. 2000's "10 Things I Hate About You" credibly transplanted Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" to high school and introduced audiences to the winning ways of Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles. And, of course, 2004's "Mean Girls" gave us a glimpse of what an engaging comedian Lindsay Lohan could be, while riffing on the classic sociological study "Queen Bees and Wannabees."
Now Will Gluck, director of 2009's not-entirely-deplorable male-cheerleader high-school comedy "Fired Up," attempts a gloss on Nathaniel Hawthorne's revered, but these days rarely read, "The Scarlet Letter" with "Easy A." The title refers not to the characteristics of a given academic course but to ... well, I'm not quite sure. In Hawthorne's tale, of course, the "A" stood for "adulteress" or "adultery," that being the presumed sin of its heroine, Hester Prynne. In this version, the smart and quick-witted but socially invisible high-schooler Olive (Emma Stone) earns her "A," such as it is, by lying to her loopy, busty, best friend Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka) about a weekend virginity loss that never even came close to happening -- even the date in question was an imaginary one. Olive's "confession" is overheard by perky holy roller and busybody Marianne (Amanda Bynes), who spreads the word on it double-quick, resulting in a) everybody in the small-town high school suddenly taking notice of Olive and b) her reputation as a "slut" making her popular in a way she doesn't quite relish.
Olive soon finds out that being regarded as a loose woman can be useful and lucrative. After agreeing to help a closeted gay pal (Dan Byrd) avert suspicion and prejudice by aurally simulating sex with him at a popular girl's party, Olive finds herself allowing various socially challenged males to brag about sampling her favors, in exchange for cash and services. Said favors remain reserved in reality, and there's the reliable charming but seemingly unattainable good-guy waiting in the wings (Penn Badgley, who looks rather like a junior Mark Ruffalo), but before he can do his Prince Charming act, Olive's got to deal with various consequences of her actions, which eventually mushroom into reports of sexually transmitted diseases and revelations of actual marital infidelity among the school's faculty members. (These adults include Malcolm McDowell, Thomas Haden Church, and Lisa Kudrow.) All the while, Olive's droll, kooky, understanding-to-a-fault parents, charmingly played by Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci -- who last teamed as a much more despairing pair in Tucci's "Blind Date" -- stand at the domestic sidelines and make goofy jokes.
Given the luminaries, young and older, dotting the cast, this ought to be some kind of fun, but it's not nearly as much fun as it might have been. Emma Stone is a very funny and attractive actress, but the 21-year-old does not compute as a high-schooler; her husky voice and cat-who-swallowed-the-canary look put one in mind of the young Kathleen Turner -- fresh but not quite young in the way that moviegoers think of the kids today. It doesn't help that her dialogue makes her sound like a film-studies major just out of her 20s. "There's a higher power that will judge you for your indecency," Bynes' character advises Olive at one point. "Tom Cruise?" Olive asks in a putative zinger, and I suppose it's touching that Hollywood believe that Tom Cruise really registers all that strongly in the high-school girl philosophy. Actually, maybe it's not so much touching as it's indicative of a problem for Hollywood. In any case, as much as I like my teen comedies to be knowing, giving a nod to the Wim Wenders film adaptation of "The Scarlet Letter," as this film does, seems even to this Wenders man a little too knowing for its own good. And once the STD plot point kicks in, the wannabe-edgy romp just starts seeming kind of frantic, weird and desperate. The excellent cast keeps the whole conceit from flying apart, but their contributions can't fully save the picture. "John Hughes did not direct my life," Olive tells the audience at one point. A lot of viewers might wish that he had. I kind of did, and I wasn't even that big a fan of him.
Glenn Kenny is a writer living in Brooklyn. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com.