Friday, September 17, 2010

Fizzle and Pop: Easy A

The filmmakers of Easy A have a clever idea working Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter into a comedy about the impact of high school gossip. But they don’t seem to know what to do with it. Clean-cut Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) gets overheard saying that she recently lost her virginity (although she hadn’t) and, within hours, it’s all over school. Her reputation is both sullied and enhanced (depending on who you ask). But her false confession leads several boys (including a gay friend who desperately wants to be recognized as straight) to seek her out and pretend that they lost their virginity with her – they’re so desperate they even pay her. Before long, the benefits of being perceived as the school sex queen pale when she begins to resemble Hester Prynne (even leading to her affixing the scarlet ‘A’ to her clothing).

Easy A has some of the same relaxed charm that 10 Things I Hate About Her did when it used The Taming of the Shrew for the source material. But director Will Gluck doesn’t have enough confidence in the theme of Easy A to take the story to its logical conclusion. As a result, the point of the movie really wobbles – in fact, it ends up as an amiable fizzle. Part of the problem is that he can’t find the right tone. (The opening fifteen minutes desperately cries out for HELP!) Gluck also can’t fully connect with the high school milieu in a believable way. For instance, since the high school climate is so sexually charged, why is Olive's "confession" the focus of such interest or scorn? Gluck picks easy puritans, too, when he employs the school Christian club as the source of Olive’s misery. Perhaps if Bert V. Royal’s script hadn't resorted to depicting these campus zealots as a cartoon conception, the  puritanical threat might have had more bite and Olive's plight would have become more interesting.

On the up side, though, Gluck finds his footing with her parents (hilariously played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson). They're like a soft-shoe comedy team effortlessly tossing the dialogue back and forth. Since it’s rare that parents are ever interesting, or engaging, in a teen comedy, Gluck should be commended for letting them practically steal the movie. It’s unfortunate though that most of the rest of the cast isn’t up to challenge. Emma Stone (Superbad) can give off both libidinous and chaste vibes as Olive, but she also works too hard to drive her lines home. (Her webcam confessions also become a lame framing device.) Stone works best in the family scenes which get her comic spirit popping as she loosens up. However, Malcolm McDowell as the school principal is so underused that it appears as if he wandered onto the wrong set; and Thomas Haden Church is conceived as self-consciously cool as the lit teacher. He inadvertently comes across as a letch. (Church doesn’t give his comic lines the spin that Tucci and Clarkson do.)

It’s hard to tell when watching Easy A just how much of the picture’s uncertainty comes from studio interference, or Will Gluck’s own self-doubts (his only previous feature as a director was the little-seen high school comedy F.U.). He genuinely has the smarts to rehabilitate the current moribund state of the teen comedy, but it’s hard to fathom whether he has the will to do so. In Easy A, Will Gluck begins with Hawthorne but he ends up with John Hughes.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, teacher and author. His latest CBC Radio documentary, This Song is Your Song: The Story of Bonnie Dobson’s Morning Dew (with sound design by John Corcelli), premieres on Inside the Music this Saturday, September 18th at 9pm on Radio One and Sirius Satellite Radio. It also airs on Radio 2 on Sunday, September 19 at 3pm.

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