The biggest joke in Easy A the new comedy about a high-school girl who goes from a nottie to a hottie when her classmates think she's had sex with a college guy is that Emma Stone could ever be a nonentity.
That's how Stone's character, Olive, is sketched at the beginning of the movie: people brush past her and knock her down; another student who's shared homerooms for nine years just can't place her face. Hey, kids of Ojai High: this is Emma bloomin' Stone, she of the green eyes, sultry voice and fetching overbite (there are no fetching underbites), the smiling, beguiling Circe who in movies of the past few years has been pursued by zombies (Zombieland), Jonah Hill (Superbad) and Marmaduke (she voiced the Australian collie Mazie opposite Owen Wilson's Great Dane). Nobody who saw these films could not see her as the most watchable, huggable presence in them. It's an ocular impossibility.
Stone's days as the smart, self-aware darling in the corners of other people's movies ought to be over. Easy A, which had its world premiere last weekend at the Toronto Film Festival and opens today in real theaters, does more than give Stone her first leading role; it establishes the 21-year-old as an actress/personality a star around whom Hollywood could build some pretty good movies.
Is Easy A one of them? Well, the film has a saucy, 120-IQ wit that it works way too hard to put over. Like last year's semi-hit (500) Days of Summer, it sweats bullets to approximate that super-cool, no-sweat vibe. Director Will Gluck, whose only previous feature was the much grosser teen comedy Fired Up!, is like a salesman who insists on planting his foot in your door even when you've invited him in. But the screenwriter, Bert V. Royal, does possess a charming voice and an inside knowledge of the trials besetting bright young people. In his 2005 off-Broadway play, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, Royal reimagined the characters from Peanuts as high-school kids with identity crises. Here he adolescentizes The Scarlet Letter; the title refers to the stigmatic A for Adultery worn by Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne. Remember Clueless, which updated Jane Austen's Emma and made Alicia Silverstone the girl of the month? We're in the same class here, with Easy A and Stone.
Easy A which also carries the modern echo of "easy lay" poses Olive as that favorite figure of movie fantasy: the fabulous babe whose sterling qualities only we, the audience, instantly recognize. (Audrey Hepburn played the role in half her movies.) Precocious every way but sexually, Olive has an unblemished school record, a fond, unforced relationship with her goofy, hippie parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) and a discriminating taste in old films; she knows that the 1926 Lillian Gish adaptation of the Hawthorne novel has it all over the 1995 Demi Moore version. She's also a little lonely.
One Friday, she tells her busty BF Rhiannon (Aly Michalka) that she has a date with a community-college stud; in fact, she spends the weekend alone with her dog and a gift card that keeps playing Natasha Bedingfield's "Pocketful of Sunshine," which Olive begins by thinking is the "worst song ever" but by Sunday has giddily and exhaustively karaoked. Next day she white-lies to Rhiannon that, yes, she did It. The rumor spreads school-wide, and in no time Olive is notorious. Girls whisper their disapproval (read: envy), while a half-dozen or so untouchable boys, whether gay or just plain repugnant, pay her to pretend she's had sex with them. One boy who's not a party to these transaction claims Olive gave him Chlamydia. Someone else is guilty, but Olive gets the rap because she looks the part she's been cast in: she's taken to wearing a spangled bra and mesh stockings. Why shouldn't she be thought of as the scarlet harlot?
In a framing device that's both very today and already overly familiar, Olive narrates the film as a webcam apologia for her bad behavior, or lack of it. (Note to Emmamaniacs: when she was 14, Stone created a PowerPoint presentation, titled "Project Hollywood 2004," to convince her Scottsdale, Ariz., parents that she should move to Los Angeles and try an acting career.) But like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, (500) Days of Summer and other recent smarty-pants teen pictures, Easy A is indebted to the John Hughes comedies of the mid-'80s just with a little more attitude and a little less angst. Its cultural cues are mostly from old movies and pop music that speak less to the teens for whom Easy A is marketed than to the 30-something people who made it.
You could say the movie, like Olive, is older than its years. But that's okay, since this is one teen comedy that acknowledges the existence of adults: not just Olive's parents but her favorite teacher (Thomas Haden Church), his restless wife (Lisa Kudrow) and the frazzled principal (Malcolm McDowell, who in his early career starred in the Brit school-revolt movie If...). More than her classmates, these oldsters are Olive's true peers, because they realize that life is ever a battle between appearance and reality.
I have to say I waged my own battle against Easy A; its assurance rankled me. But I finally surrendered to the script's breezy intelligence and the movie's relatively mature sensibility. As for Emma Stone, she didn't have to win me over. She conquered me from the first A.