School for scandal: ‘Easy A’ makes the grade with sharp satire and a glowing star turn
Until it spins manically out of control in the last act, “Easy A’’ is a charmer: a high school satire with a lethally sharp script and a big, smart, adorable star performance from Emma Stone. The movie bites off much more than it can chew — virginity and the double standards surrounding it, social media, Jesus freaks, gay teens, and the 1995 Demi Moore version of “The Scarlet Letter’’ are just some of the targets it skewers — but it’s nice that someone’s at least trying to push us out of our comfort zone. At its best, “Easy A’’ wants to be “Election’’ at 78 r.p.m. At its worst, it’s just a much better “Jennifer’s Body.’’
Any other actress might not have been able to keep up the pace, but Stone comes through as Olive Penderghast, an over-achieving Ojai, Calif., high schooler who finds herself boxed into a fib to a ditzy friend (Aly Michalka) about what she did last weekend. By day’s end, she’s been labeled the school slut. Stone, a tart, raspy-voiced redhead, has been working her way up the ladder since appearing in 2007’s “Superbad,’’ and she comes into her own here as a happily subversive motormouth. There’s a beautifully edited bit early on where, over the course of a weekend, Olive caves in to the cheesy, overplayed pleasures of the Natasha Bedingfield hit “Pocketful of Sunshine’’; by owning the scene, Stone owns us. Is this what Lindsay Lohan might have become if she hadn’t lost her marbles?
The film’s first shock is that Olive kind of digs the attention. That everybody’s staring at her means she’s at least being seen, and she also appreciates how it bares the hypocrisy up and down the social ladder: The boys standing back in fear and lust, the girls smiling as they sharpen their claws on what used to be her reputation. When Olive decides to help a classmate (Dan Byrd) who’s gay but desperate to appear straight, she lends him her newly nuclear persona for a price. “Easy A’’ steps into queasy but fascinating waters: Can someone prostitute who people think she is but still remain pure? And does it matter if she gets paid in
Olive is reading “The Scarlet Letter’’ in her English class (taught by cool teach Thomas Haden Church), and Hester Prynne’s fashion choice — the big “A’’ — become hers, albeit with a Victoria’s Secret twist. “Easy A’’ isn’t a classic-lit teen revamp like “Clueless’’ or “She’s the Man’’; it’s more a series of sardonic riffs and social observations that spring from the panic around teenage sex — who wants to have it (or not) and who wants to be thought of as having had it (or not). (For the dunderheaded boys’ version of this topic, there’s “The Virginity Hit,’’ also opening today, but I’d advise you to stay far, far away.)
Would a 16-year-old girl really relish being pigeonholed as a toxic skank? Is anything in the movie believable? Not for a second, but for a while you’re having too much fun to notice. Bert V. Royal’s script gives off rudely witty sparks like “If there’s one thing worse than chlamydia, it’s Florida.’’ Olive’s parents are played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as gloriously relaxed bohemians — they’re the Nick and Nora Charles of Left Coast parenting — and so what if they’re pure fantasy figures?
Less convincing is Todd (Penn Badgley), a lanky dreamboat who knows Olive’s true nature because — well, it’s never clear how he knows. “Easy A’’ has a major crush on ’80s teen movies, so Todd’s basically Michael Schoeffling in “Sixteen Candles’’ until he turns into John Cusack in “Say Anything.’’
Unfortunately, director Will Gluck starts whirling this carousel so fast that the audience gets pitched off about an hour in. Lisa Kudrow turns up as the school guidance counselor — she’s married to the cool teacher but has a big secret — and suddenly “Easy A’’ is piling on the plot complications and hyperactive dialogue. The movie’s still not believable but now you notice. By the final scenes, Stone is spinning her wheels and trying our patience: Olive has to learn her moral lesson, get the guy, reconcile with her friend, get her reputation back, and make sure everyone in school knows what fools they’ve been. The actress can’t yet carry a course-load that heavy. But she will.