Smart, funny, and unexpectedly sweet, Will Gluck’s Easy A is the most pleasant surprise of my film year, a high school comedy with wit rather than snark, charm rather vulgarity, and heart rather than hormones. I am, it must be admitted, a notoriously bad prognosticator when I get away form documenting my critical response and venture into trying to predict what audiences will do. (I remember thinking that Watchmen would do boffo box office despite my own muted response.) So take it as a mark of my response rather than a flat prediction when I say that I could totally see this film doing for Emma Stone what Pretty Woman did for Julia Roberts. I’m sure that the film will draw any number of John Hughes comparisons–it openly makes several nods in the direction of Ferris Bueller–but while Hughes films generally have female characters trapped in circumstances that are beneath them, Easy A‘s heroine shares with Gary Marshall’s the quality of being too smart (and, yeah, sexy) to be kept down for too long.
Inspired by rather than retelling Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the film focuses on Olive (Stone), a normal girl in a sexed up world. In one of the film’s knowing bits of social commentary, she makes up her first sexual encounter because it is easier to go with the flow than explain or try to justify her reluctance to join the sexual rat race. That eventually leads to a favor for a gay male friend where Olive agrees to pretend to be his sexual partner to get the homophobic school off his back. Rumors–both false and true–about what Olive is doing begin, and we’re off to the races.
The premise is pure sitcom, but it is in the execution and delivery that the film shines.
I suspect some Christians will be upset at the film’s portrayal of the high school’s virginity police–a group of sanctimonious and hypocritical teens for God led by Marianne (Amanda Bynes), who find it much, much more important to express their disapproval towards those not as holy (by which we mean always, only, chaste) as they are trying to be than they do to actually work on figuring out who they are and what they want out of life. The God Squad didn’t bother me so much. My general rule for comedies, particularly satires, is that I’ll cut artists some slack if they are pointing out the foibles of everyone and not just singling out one group because it is more or less culturally acceptable to do so.
More problematic is the representation of a central arc where Olive herself investigates the Bible to try to figure out where her critics are coming from and even visits a few churches in search of spiritual counsel. Admittedly, Olive runs out of one pastor’s office before he has time to say anything, so it isn’t as though the film shows the adult Christians as adding to her problems, but it’s hard not to read the scene in which Olive begins to unburden herself in a confessional only to find there is no priest on the other side as not suggesting, however inadvertently, that nobody is really listening.
It is true that the resolution of the film entails Olive coming to terms with some of the things she has done wrong, and I appreciated that the film doesn’t just become about the triumph of innocence over hypocrisy. What goodness there is in this world, though, is innate, not learned.
Another very interesting aspect of the representation of Olive’s parents, deliciously played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson. They are cut from the John Hughes tree of loving but hopelessly ineffectual parents, but it’s interesting to me where their impotence comes from. They are not ineffective because they are out of touch but rather because they are themselves products of an age of sexual liberation and experimentation. Thus, they have no clue how to counsel their daughter on chastity. They know their primary duty is to love their daughter no matter what, and a good part of the humor comes from them reassuring Olive that they still care for her in spite of all the rumors that they are hearing. That they believe in their daughter’s goodness without believing that she is being good says a lot about the postmodern parents’ dilemma (full disclosure, I have no kids so it’s easy for me to talk).
At the end of the day, Olive wanders off to maybe or maybe not earn the real “A” (that turns out to be not so easy after all). Again, there will probably be some for whom that is not enough, for whom Olive must not only be a virgin who comes to realize the dangers and errors of rumors but must be a virgin for all the right reasons. For me, it’s enough that the film shows the absurdity of living in a world in which it is easier, cooler, and hipper to pretend you are worse than you are (or even want to be) in order to be accepted than it is to actually work on becoming as good as you would like to be.