Monday, December 20, 2010

On DVD: "Easy A"

Will Gluck’s Easy A is such a step above the standard high-school sex comedy, so much smarter and funnier and drier than expected or, frankly, required, it's somewhat surprising that it actually made any money. It’s a breezy, sly effort, with a quick wit and a charmingly dirty mind, and those tend to be the “teen movies” that flop—unless you go back to something like Clueless, which it bears a more than passing resemblance to. Like that film, Easy A takes a classic piece of source material (in this case, The Scarlet Letter) and whirls it through a blender of knowing satire, relatable situational comedy, and pop-culture percipience to whip up something new and fresh and genuinely funny. And, like Clueless, it could very well make a movie star out of its lead. (Hopefully that works out a little better for this one.)

The story concerns the wonderfully-named Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone), a brainy high school student who is basically a social ghost. One weekend, to avoid a camping trip with her best friend Rhiannon’s hippie family, she fibs and says she has a date; the following Monday, when Rhi jumps to the conclusion that Olive lost her virginity to the fictional college beau, the conversation is overheard by prissy Bible-thumper Marianne (Amanda Bynes), who immediately spreads word of Olive’s “sin” throughout the school. Suddenly, Olive finds herself the center of attention, her made-up fling garnering newfound social notoriety. Olive’s a smart cookie, so she quickly figures out how to spin her infamy for maximum effect—until it all begins to backfire, as these things inevitably do.

Director Will Gluck and screenwriter Bert V. Royal bring to the picture the energy and enthusiasm of relative newcomers who haven’t been told what they can’t do. Olive narrates her story, via a webcast, and does so with the kind of formula awareness and playful wit that made the voice-overs in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang such a treat. The device also allows the audience to become co-conspirators with the lead, ratcheting up her likability and letting Stone sell several quotable lines. “I always thought pretending to lose my virginity would be a little more… special,” she confesses, her whiskey-soaked voice dripping with sarcasm. “Judy Blume should’ve prepared me for that.” (Favorite line in the movie, best left unexplained: “If there’s one thing worse than Chlamydia, it’s Florida.”)

The movie is stuffed with memorable supporting players—Thomas Haden Church is spot-on as the cool English teacher, while Lisa Kudrow sneaks into the movie and just smashes it—but it comes to particularly spirited life in the scenes involving Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as Olive’s parents. Thankfully unshackled from the clichés of the clueless, strict, or mean “grown-ups,” they instead come across as two people smart and funny enough to have produced an offspring like Olive—while simultaneously not coming off as self-consciously, unconvincingly “cool.” They’re just good, loose, trusting parents, and their riotously funny scenes (Tucci and Clarkson are a long way from the dour Blind Date) have a jazzy, improvisational punch.

And then there’s Emma Stone. In last spring’s Paper Man, she displayed gifts only hinted at in her supporting roles in films like Superbad and Zombieland; here, given the opportunity to carry an entire film, she brings the full force of her talent to bear. She’s funny, she’s confident, she’s sexy, she’s believable, and she effortlessly projects a fierce intelligence, giving every line a spin and a wink while never stepping outside of the moment (unless, of course, she’s talking to the camera). She negotiates the turn to serious subject matter, often with more success than the film surrounding her does. Oh, and she can also apparently sing and dance. It will be interesting, in the years to come, to see what Ms. Stone can’t do.

While it has moments that are sheer perfection, Easy A is an imperfect film—there’s a bit too much of the meta-movie stuff, the nudge-nudge acknowledgment of the pat story arc doesn’t negate the shameless embracing of it, and I liked Amanda Bynes’s character better when Mandy Moore played it in Saved!. But, again, here’s a movie that could have slid by on high hems and smug double-entendres (like, um, the title), and instead, they went to the trouble to cook up a furiously paced, sharp little movie. Easy A is good, not-entirely-clean fun.

"Easy A" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, December 21st. 

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