EASY A (15) Directed by: WILL GLUCK Starring: EMMA STONE, AMANDA BYNES, THOMAS HADEN CHURCH, PATRICIA CLARKSON, STANLEY TUCCI **
High school teen comedy Easy A is being hyped as a star-making vehicle for Emma Stone, but it feels more like an attempt to stuff her down our throats. That's not to dismiss the husky-voiced actress, whose nice line in sarcasm and expert comic timing was a major contributory factor in the success of Superbad and Zombieland (and undoubtedly helped her to recently land the female lead in the new Spider-Man movie). It's merely to point out that Easy A tries far too hard to announce her as a star when it doesn't really need to bother.
Like an insecure teen, this is a film that has no confidence in what it really has going for it, and instead projects an unnecessary air of false bravado. Which would be fine were it ever to let its guard down long enough to allow its cast to truly shine, but it doesn't. Instead it seems so desperate to be hip and flip, commenting on its status as a teen comedy every step of the way, that it forgets that the best teen comedies require moments of genuine, open-hearted sweetness (or actual edginess) to stick in the mind.
As with numerous other post-Clueless teen films, Easy A fashions itself after a piece of classic literature, a done-to-death conceit that the film attempts to get round by admitting upfront - via Stone's running commentary - that this conceit has in fact been done to death. The book in question is Nathanial Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, which, in the words of the terrible Demi Moore-starring film version, has been "freely adapted" for the purpose of providing Easy A with some pseudo-savvy commentary on the heroine's central dilemma (naturally the film references the "freely adapted" line to convince us that it's really self-aware).
That heroine is Olive (Stone), a whip-smart, switched-on high school student who knows it's a clich to say she feels anonymous, but does so anyway because - as should be painfully obvious by now - the script doesn't know how to subvert clichs, just point them out. Olive quickly loses that feeling of anonymity, however, after a lie she concocts about losing her virginity spreads like wildfire round the school, gaining her a skanky reputation overnight, partly thanks to the malicious mouth of Jesus freak Marianne (Amanda Bynes), and partly because Olive refuses to immediately come clean and deny the lie.
Instead, because she's such a smart, switched-on girl with progressive parents (played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson), excellent grades and no social life of which to speak, she decides to conduct a little experiment to see what will happen if she embraces her reputation and pretends to be the girl everyone thinks she is. Which is why she starts parading round school like an extra from Moulin Rouge and taking great delight in winding up the abstinence crowd. She also starts putting her leg-spreading reputation to altruistic use by helping other socially maladroit classmates rehabilitate themselves by allowing them to brag about fake sexual favours in return for cash, gift cards or shopping coupons.
Naturally, her pretend prostitution leads to a lot of complications as she starts losing control of the lie and finds guys don't treat her with respect - except of course, the one guy she really likes, who immediately sees through all her bluster and asks her out. As romantic conflict goes, it's not particularly deep or heart-wrenching and doesn't have much to do with The Scarlet Letter, and that's something of a problem for Easy A because it's clear fairly early on that there's nothing really at stake for Olive. There's no sense her behaviour will have any genuine consequences for her because she's written and played as a beautiful, wise-beyond-her years know-it-all for whom things will probably always work out - and where's the fun in that?
The script, by first-timer Bert V Royal, has none of the wit or insight of Tina Fey's screenplay for Mean Girls or Diablo Cody's for Juno. Even worse, the way director Will Gluck structures the film around a video blog confession from Olive just adds an extra layer of smugness by allowing her to reflect on other teen films in Juno-esque teen slang. Alas, the films Easy A references - Say Anything, Ten Things I Hate About You, John Hughes's entire back catalogue - wore their hearts on their sleeves. Their characters sacrificed themselves on the altar of dignity for the sake of making grand gestures. Easy A thinks it's too big and clever for that, so attempts instead to simultaneously mock and homage those moments by knowingly recreating them, right down to the soundtrack cues. The result is a film with nothing to claim as its own except a wasted opportunity to showcase what its star might really do in a leading role more worthy of her talents.