“Easy A.” 2010. Will Gluck, director. Sony/Screen Gems, 93 minutes.
Here’s a new twist on an old formula: boy pays girl to pretend she likes him, so other kids at school will think he’s cool. It worked in “Can’t Buy Me Love” (1987), when geeky Roland Miller (played by dreamy Patrick Dempsey) hires the lovely and popular Cindi Mancini (Amanda Peterson) to pretend she is his girlfriend. Cindi goes along with it because she desperately needs $200, but she establishes strict rules governing their relationship, and it remains chaste until after the pseudo-romance blossoms inevitably into genuine love. It’s a sweet movie about the superficiality of teenagers and the transformative power of a good haircut.
“Easy A,” however, avoids the relationship and cuts to the chase. In this film we are expected to believe that geeky teenaged boys would pay a girl simply to say “I had sex with her,” (as though boys ever had to ask permission to start rumors like that.) Moreover, we are expected to believe that a pretty, witty, and seemingly intelligent girl would be willing to destroy her reputation just to help these poor slobs out. Even more, we are expected to believe that having a one-time-only roll in the hay with the high school slut would make a boy seem anything other than pathetic. I just don’t buy it.
As if that doesn’t require enough suspension of disbelief, we then have to buy the idea that, after she has destroyed said reputation, the guy of her real dreams would still want her, slutty reputation and all, no questions asked. I may be old, but I don’t think human nature has changed that much since my dating days.
The film is presented episodically as Olive (Emma Stone) tells her story via her webcam journal. Stone is a fine actress (if a bit old for this role). She is cute, sassy, smart and fun, reminiscent of Lindsay Lohan in “Mean Girls” (before she was ruined by some of the same casual values portrayed in this film). Supposedly Olive feels “invisible” and ignored by her peers, but she is friends with one of the coolest girls at school and is invited to her parties. She seems to be friends with the jocks and the cheerleaders as well. So I don’t get this angle either.
Still, on the surface, the movie is a lot of fun. It begins innocently enough, with Olive making up a date with an imaginary boyfriend to avoid going camping with the family of her best friend, Rhiannon (Alyson Mychalka). When Rhiannon asks for prurient details about the date, Olive goes overboard in describing a night of passion, unaware that Marianne (Amanda Bynes), the class prude, can overhear them. Marianne spreads the false story, and everyone at school starts talking about Olive and her mysterious college boyfriend. Instead of denying it or ignoring it, Olive embraces her new reputation by pretending to sleep with every boy who proffers a gift card, beginning with her gay friend Brandon (Dan Byrd) who wants to stay in the closet. Puh-leez!!
Coincidentally, Olive is studying Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” at school, so to demonstrate her contempt for the way others are treating her (even though it’s her own fault for lying to them), she buys an assortment of bustiers and corsets, adorns them all with deep red A’s, and begins living the martyred life of Hester Prynne. (Or so we are led to believe.)
However, as anyone who has read “The Scarlet Letter” knows, Hawthorne’s Hester is not a slut. She does not happily service every unhappy man in town–or pretend to. She falls in love–true love– with a man whom she cannot marry, and she becomes pregnant. Shunned by the community when her pregnancy begins to show, and forced to wear a letter A on her clothing as a brand, Hester lives a life of solitude and service to the community that has shunned her. She does it on her own terms, with her head held high. Through her actions, as time goes on, the “A” seems to transform from “Adulterer” to “Angel” in the eyes of many of the women in town, although they never lift the shunning. For Hester, the scarlet letter is not an “easy A.” It comes at a high cost. In fact, she names her baby “Pearl” to acknowledge the “great price” she has paid.
Like Hester, who is persecuted by her community’s puritanical leaders, Olive is persecuted by an overzealous Christian Club at school, led by Marianne. Members of the club are presented with typical Hollywood venom. They are self-righteous, cruel, vapid, and judgmental–and at least one is a sexual hypocrite (of course). By contrast, Olive’s parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) are presented as hip, witty and cool. Olive banters with them, exchanging clever word plays and literary references. But they are too hip–or too hippie– to provide any actual parenting, rules, or guidelines. “You know we accept your choices,” is all her mother says about the bizarre new wardrobe, providing a contrast to the judgmental Christian Club at school, but not much help.
School administrators are no better–the principal gives her detention for using the British curse word “twat,” but says nothing to her about wearing lingerie as a shirt. Olive’s guidance counselor (Lisa Kudrow) is equally useless, giving Olive a handful of condoms when what Olive really wants is help figuring out how to undo the web of lies that entangles her.
Usually I enjoy teen films that borrow their plots from classic literature, such as “Clueless” (1995), based on Jane Austen’s “Emma,” and “10 Things I Hate about You” (1997), based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” These timeless stories translate well to modern settings, giving the films greater resonance and depth. But this one doesn’t work. It’s hard to root for a teenager who glorifies casual sex, teen drinking, pal parenting, and stereotypes of any kind, whether Christian or gay. (Or business. When a Quizno’s mascot shows up inexplicably at a Christian protest, Olive complains derisively, “The only thing that trumps religion is capitalism.”) Oh, Hollywood. You are so predictable.
My biggest beef with “Easy A” is that it simply looks too easy. Olive ruins her reputation with a long list of pretend liaisons, and then restores it overnight, just by telling the boy of her dreams that it was all made up. But as any real girl will tell you, it ain’t that easy when you’re easy. If we learn anything from “The Scarlet Letter,” it is that reputations are easily tarnished, but painfully restored. There is no such thing as an easy A.
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and has served as entertainment editor of Liberty Magazine since 2005. She is the founder and producer of Anthem Film Festival, which will premiere at Freedom Fest in Las Vegas next summer.