The biggest problem with Easy A is the awful performance by lead actress Emma Stone. A movie lives and dies by its main character, and no movie more so than one which has the character delivering Juno-esque commentary throughout the length of the film. Couldn’t they have gotten somebody with more charisma to take this role?
I keed, of course. If you take a trip to the RottenTomatoes page for the film, you’ll immediately be struck by reviews lauding “a star turn by Stone”, “Stone’s star turn”, “a star-is-born performance”, “her best role to date”. Here’s Rob Humanick from The Projection Booth (yeah, I don’t know what that is either) to sum it up: “Stone elevates the material to the near sublime.” I mentioned Juno before, a comparison that is difficult to shake, as both films have a heroine who is too cool for school and is totally aware of it. They’ve also both got hip parents who love their children in a liberated we’re-sure-they’ll-do-what’s-best sort of way. Stone’s movie benefits from having Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as the parents (I was hugely impressed by Tucci in Julie & Julia – even more so here), a pairing which easily blows Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons out of the water. And Stone’s extraordinary performance as Olive quickly differentiates itself from that of Ellen Page because this is a character who really is intelligent, instead of just believing that she is.
Unfortunately, the movie itself is not as smart as its main character. Or at least, that’s what all the reviews I’ve read keep getting at. My wife, teasing, likes to tell me that I read other people’s reviews before writing my own because I’m letting them tell me how I feel about the movie. In this instance, it may be becoming true. I’d be tempted to justify it as being reasonably swayed by their compelling arguments, but I’m not really sure I’ve heard a coherent argument that gets much further than “it’s not as clever as it thinks it is”. Okay, here’s one. The movie is a loose adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic fourteenth century Spanish novel The Scarlet Letter. Stopping here, the criticism is that the movie references Hawthorne’s work numerous times, but the similarities from that point forward get shaky. Where one is about an adulterous affair, the other is about a girl who revels in tawdry gossip. Where one is largely about sin and guilt, plus various other biblical allusions, the other only touches on guilt at the last minute and frankly reviles the Bible. This is not a movie to take your youth group to see.
I don’t see “not being enough like The Scarlet Letter” as a valid argument, actually. I’m getting my legs back. Easy A casually makes fun of the Demi Moore film version of Hawthorne’s book, taking shots at it for being “freely adapted”, but don’t think for a moment that this film isn’t aware that it’s doing the same thing. Which brings me to the other fairly concrete critique that criticks have lobbed toward Stone’s flick: it’s too self-aware. Of course, this is usually coupled with the less defined qualifier, “yet not as smart as it thinks it is”. I am paraphrasing, obviously, but the song’s the same. Early on in the film, Olive’s favorite teacher (played by Thomas Haden Church) begins talking candidly about Hawthorne’s book, trying to get on his students’ level by setting his discussion to a rap beat. It’s not long before he brushes off the concept, calling it the stuff of bad movies. Similarly, in her continuous voice-over, Olive herself scoffs at the film cliche wherein the literary work the characters are discussing somehow coincides with the events in said characters’ lives. The movie is clearly winking at its audience, admitting up-front what it is doing.
I get the feeling that simply being self-aware is the crime that even the generally positive reviews of Easy A have levied against the film. I hate to compare a mostly light comedy with the best television show airing currently, but it reminds me somewhat of the backlash that “Community” receives, the idea that because it references items from pop culture it must be inherently shallow. Analogously, because Easy A has its lead actress discuss her desire to see a pointless musical number, then seems likely to follow through on it, how does that make the concept somehow less clever? But the movie is light, which is one thing that Juno has in its favor, if this is going to be a war between the two. Ellen Page’s film at least dives into some more serious territory at times. If the bigger concept of Stone’s movies is about the power of lies, I have seen that explored to a much greater degree quite recently in the superb The Children’s Hour. If the larger purpose of the movie is in some back-handed anti-Twilight liberal abstinence-or-whatever cautionary tale, the concept is even more muddled than the Hawthorne references.
If, however, the movie is primarily a cute, energetic, funny film; easily drawn from a broad well of thematic reference; featuring warm, engaging performances from a bevy of talented actors and actresses … then it works just splendidly. Maybe I’m imagining that there’s this widespread opposition to the movie. Perhaps the complaints I’ve addressed here were merely straw men or windmills. I found Easy A to be extremely entertaining and often very funny, but I also can see that it’s not trying to plumb the same depths of emotion as similar titles might have. So I feel myself sliding back and forth. I’m able to understand the disappointment in a movie that could have taken things a little more seriously and become something closer to essential.
But also, just, hey, lay off it man, it’s a really fun movie just the way it is.