The multiplex poster of the movie “Easy A” sums up its main lesson very well: “Let’s Not and Say We Did.” If you’re going to say you’ve done something, then it better be true, because even a teeny-weeny lie could make your life a living hell and, worse, make your name synonymous with toxic skank forever.
How Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) got to be wearing “whore couture” with a scarlet letter A on her chest — just like Hester Prynne, the martyr and latter-day saint of the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel — is the subject of this totally charming comedy that sheds light on teen misbehaviorial patterns in our age of social networks and the nature of shame, rash judgment and other sins.
The hemlines of Olive’s clothes conform nicely to Ojai High School’s rule: not higher than her fingertips. She won’t be out of place among fashionably dressed women walking at midnight along a Parisian boulevard, if only because her preference is French designer brands: black, cut low and strapless, with lacy frills steeped in corset chic. She wears her shame like a fashion model. The letter A recalls Hester’s punishment for her crime of Adultery and — contrary to actress Stone’s quip to media people that it stood for Awesome — it is something else entirely. It’s a play on the phrase “easy lay.”
How easy a lay? Well, some lucky boys in this California school can claim to have bedded her just like that — this bunch of weird guys who many say were gay, irredeemably repugnant or ostracized. Olive’s reputation as a slut, a trollop and their dozen or so synonyms, is solid and well earned. She came out in the open at a party at a friend’s house, where her classmates gathered before a bedroom door to listen to her kinky panting and squealing session with Brandon (Dan Byrd), who until then had been tormented by talk that he was gay. Well, he’s a cool dude among the guys now.
But Olive, 17, who narrates her life story in a Web podcast, tells us a totally different story. First that it’s all a lie of her own doing, a bunch of fake relationships and pretend sex. She’s been accepting offers simply to help boost the guys’ peer ranking. “The rumors of my promiscuity have been greatly exaggerated,” she says. And, second, that things are now in danger of getting out of hand.
For a highly intelligent girl to tell her closest friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka) the lie that she slept with a college jock over the weekend sounds dumb, but that’s the Olive drawn by director Will Gluck and screenplay author Bert V. Royal: a jumble of contradictions that would have been irritating were it not for the fact that she has a great way with words (a fusion of the language of “South Park” and Ivy League undergraduates) and a sassy personality that keep us wanting to hear more.
The trouble with Olive is that she gives in too quickly to the whims of friends and those who know how to use emotional blackmail. Is her personality too insecure or of such low self-esteem that she’s always trying to please others, the school lynch mob included? Let’s not forget that she’s aware of her precocious intelligence. “Don’t worry,” she tells a boy at the age of 8, “I’m not nearly as smart as I think I am.”
And after all, she has the greatest parents in the world (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson), a bit too liberal and hands-off perhaps but exceptional, and subtly witty too. “I will take a bullet for you, have my throat slit to stand up for you,” dad Dill assures her. “Any friend of Olive is a friend of our daughter,” mom Rosemary assures visitor Brandon, a tautology but sounds very welcoming. Their names are Dill and Rosemary? Yes, together with their adopted black son Chip, this is a spiced-up family.
Rhiannon’s readiness to believe Olive’s lie is just one of a series of this film’s satirical takes on the nature of gossip: that people are willing to believe the worst in others and that they will blindly believe what they choose to believe. Tell ‘em what they want to hear and they will lap it up, spreading the news virally through today’s mobile phone texting and Internet postings.
The effect is that the “velocity and the obnoxiousness of the inexactitude” accelerates (words on Olive’s prompt cards). At Stage Two, her reputation goes up from a common slut to a tramp who demands cash in exchange for easy favors. It doesn’t matter that in reality she gets peanuts for her help, such as discount coupons for Home Depot or free tickets to a foreign-language art-house film (now showing: “The Scarlet Letter” in German). And didn’t Brandon just send her a tacky thank-you gift, a vibrator?
At Stage 3, she incurs the wrath of Jesus-loving, sex-abstaining young Christians on campus, led by Cross Your Heart Club head Marianne Bryant (Amanda Byrnes). Hell-fearing Marianne, a pastor’s daughter, has many positive virtues. Pretty and devoted to her cause, she rivals Olive in a contest to win our sympathy, and if she thinks that Olive dresses up like a Jezebel harlot, then she tells her so and warns that girls like her must someday answer to a Higher Authority. (“Like Tom Cruise?” Olive asks, in one of the film’s digs at religious groups, echoing a theme in Mark Twain’s works). But like Rhiannon, Marianne believes what she likes to hear, and accepts Olive as a friend when she thinks, mistakenly, that she has seen the divine light. And in the film’s final irony, Olive turns out to be a personification of virtues that young Christians hold so dearly.
Stage 4 is the turning point in the spiraling charade, when Olive allegedly turns into a home wrecker and, for the first time, reveals the pain she’s been through. She idolizes her wise English teacher Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church), who doesn’t hesitate to explain the finer points of literature through rap and who warns gossipy kids that “innuendo touches everything you say.” He is married to the guidance counselor (Lisa Kudrow), whose advice to Olive is to “let your freak flag fly.” Olive later does something to the Griffiths that doesn’t make her proud of herself.
And then there’s mild-mannered Anson (Jake Sandvig), the school’s Renaissance man, hot-air balloon enthusiast and admirer of author Sylvia Plath, who invites Olive to a date at the Lobster Shack. He may be the only guy in high school who can tolerate Olive’s prattle about rhinoceros horn and blister beetle as aphrodisiacs. He raises up Olive’s hopes for a better social life. But what a letdown it is when, in the movie’s eye-opening moment, he turns out to be no better than the rest of the guys. Like any young woman who’s not thinking straight, Olive blames herself, not Anson, and starts her quest to clear her name once and for all. How she does this is a major component of the lighthearted fun that is “Easy A.”
As the movie progresses, several questions arise, the biggest of which is the motive behind Olive’s over-identifying with Hawthorne’s branded martyr. The movie leaves some questions like this one unanswered. For instance, it’s hard to fathom why the people whom Olive had helped turn so mean in the end. But the movie does answer, in a droll, heartwarming way, the question of why the Penderghast couple has raised such a wonderful daughter in Olive. And as to the puzzle as to who among a short list of school hunks will win Olive’s heart, it delivers a solution that is heartwarming, very romantic and obvious.
Assessing this movie’s fine cast could be quickly done through what Olive and her friends call “identifiers,” or the initials of the key words that describe a person. Penn Badgley as Woodchuck Todd is S.S.T., the strong and silent type. Byrnes as Marianne and Michalka as Rhiannon are both F.L, funny and lovable. Haden Church and Kudrow as the Griffiths are B.S., believable and sympathetic. The role of veteran Malcolm McDowell as Principal Gibbons is U.U., unfortunately underwritten. And playing the Penderghasts with a post-hippie style of parenting, Tucci and Clarkson are M.A.G., magical actor genies who are a delight to watch.
And Emma Stone is simply A.B.C. — adorable, bright and a completely confident comedienne. What the critics have unanimously said about her is true. “Easy A” is as much the journey of a young woman into adulthood as Stone’s stepping stone to a well-deserved stardom.