Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hawthorne in Her Side: Easy A

Easy A

“John Hughes did not write my life,” laments Olive Penderghast, a high school student longing to be Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles rather than the scandalous harlot of Ojai, California’s senior high school in Will Gluck’s Easy A. The sentiment, part of a webcast Olive is making, characterizes this very “meta” movie, which winks at the conventions of movies— the 1980s teen wet dreams of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, and film adaptations of The Scarlet Letter, a 1926 silent version with Lillian Gish and a “freely adapted” version with Demi Moore, in which Moore spoke with an inexplicable English accent. Olive’s English teacher (Thomas Haden Church), opening a discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel with an improvised rap, mocks himself for being a clichéd hip English teacher, “just like in every bad movie you’ve ever seen.”

Bert Royal’s irony-laden script has clever, straight-laced Olive acquiring her “filthy skank” reputation by accident. She invents an imaginary boyfriend and fake-confesses to her best friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka) that she lost her virginity to him. The “admission” is overheard by the school’s Jesus-freak-in-chief, Marianne (Amanda Bynes).

Rumors of Olive’s loose ways spread like a text-message virus. Olive cements her bad-girl reputation by agreeing to let her friend Brandon (Dan Byrd), who Olive describes as a “Kinsey 6 homosexual,” pretend he had sex with her so he can dodge the daily beatings he’s getting for being gay. Unwilling to do anything “half-assed,” Olive stages a fake raucous bedroom grunt-fest meant to be overheard by a house party of slavering classmates.

Soon Olive is being approached by all manner of nerds, fat boys and outcasts who want help acquiring an instant studly reputation. They begin offering her store gift cards (one hapless fellow can muster only a 20-percent-off coupon for Bed, Bath & Beyond) in return for the status-enhancing right to brag about having sex with her.

Suddenly awash in gift cards and condemnation (the Jesus-freak students pray for her and mount a picket line), virginal Olive decides to embrace her inner Hester Prynne. Whereas in real life high school girls have committed suicide as a result of such scorn, Olive cuts up her conservative wardrobe and starts wearing sexy improvised bustiers, each adorned with a huge red letter ‘A.’ She struts down the school hallways, turning teenage (or twentysomething playing teenage) heads.

These rather outlandish plot machinations are made quite tolerable by the witty writing—toned down considerably from the original script to avoid an “Easy R” rating—and a winning lead performance by 22-year-old Stone, whose sultry voice and oversized eyes make her an eminently appealing heroine. The supporting cast, too, is superb: Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s tolerant, jokey parents, Malcolm McDowell as the beleaguered school principal, and Lisa Kudrow as the guidance counselor who’s a bit of a scarlet woman herself.

This is a movie best appreciated for its texture rather than its silly plot, but as with all comedies, attention must eventually be paid to the story. Combating the calumny of her classmates, Olive realizes she would really rather be romanced by someone like John Cusack in Say Anything, and sets her sights on the object of her girlhood crush, Todd (Penn Badgely), who stays nobly above the gossipy fray. She also muses that life should feature the kind of nonsensical musical number that climaxed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and so the movie obliges, providing her with a steamy show-stopper that gets her escorted off the gym floor. As if to underscore how much the world has changed since John Hughes’ heyday, Olive’s dance number is also a commercial for her free confessional webcast. -- Pamela Zoslov

Originally published in the Cleveland Scene,

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