If you directed the world’s wittiest teenagers into a room and told them to bash out a screenplay, Easy A would be the result. It’s messy and not always sure what it wants to say, but has an endearing dedication to getting laughs regardless of logic and puts a fresh twist on a genre that has been stagnant for the best part of the decade. Whilst innovative comedy has had a resurgance on TV with the likes of Party Down, 30 Rock and Community – even the now maligned Big Bang Theory was, at first, a brave push into the then-niche world of geek humour – the genre on film has lapsed into either playing second fiddle to anaemic romance in chick flicks or confusing vulgarity with wit in bottom-of-the-barrel releases like Meet The Spartans or Epic Movie. The roots of the fall can be traced back to attempts to recapture the success of American Pie, with which Easy A shares a goofy charm, by copying the surface details but missing all the hard work it was doing under the surface with a perfectly-tuned build-up/pay-off joke structure, climaxing – sorry – with the notorious band camp line.
Although many of its laughs derive from a deep reservoir of hilariously sly one-liners rather than Pie‘s set-piece gags, they share a dedication to building their comedy on strong character writing that allows the audience to get to know and feel like a part of the group they’ll be convalescing with for the ninety-odd minute running time. That doesn’t mean the characters are particularly deep or even remotely realistic, but each has a clear personality and flaws which are never sold out in favour of scavenging for unearned punchlines. Of course it helps when not only is the writing this clean, but those characters are played by a cast which packs even the supporting roles with such notable talent. The work of Amanda Bynes, Thomas Hayden Church, Lisa Kudrow and Alyson Michalka is likely to be overlooked in favour of the sterling performances from the leads, but each of them gives their character a definable sense of self that the movie wouldn’t feel nearly as satisfying without.
Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly the actors in the top roles who give the film its spark. We all know by now how far the funny and gorgeous Emma Stone’s star has soared as a result of her showing as Olive Penderghast, a high school girl who substantiates a false rumour about her sex life after the effect she sees it have on her reputation, only for it to grow out of her control. It’s difficult to state quite how exquisite Stone is in the role – were it not for Natalie Portman’s late showstopper in Black Swan, she would easily be my choice for the year’s best performance. Her personality is in perfect synch with Olive’s dry wit sensibilities and her comic timing a once in a generation type of rare skill. Bill Murray’s famous death scene in Stone’s previous film Zombieland might as well have been a hand-over from one generation’s great screen comic to the next.
Stone’s performance is a condemnation of every actress who has ever complained that their looks overshadow their work: she may be a flame-haired, nose-crinkling goddess of adorability (her little purr and smile in a scene at the school swimming pool will own my heart forever) and while that makes her characters almost irrationally easy to fall in love with, no-one has ever come away from watching her work her magic in this film, Zombieland or redeeming the otherwise dud Superbad without remembering her at least as much for her skills as her appearance. Olive is pivotal to everything in Easy A and Stone not only shines on her own, whether throwing herself whole-heartedly into a karaoke rendition of Natasha Beddingfield – no wonder Oliver lied about what she was doing that weekend – or devising a fake ten minutes of noisy passion with her gay friend for the benefit of the crowd listening outside the bedroom door, but brings the best out of everyone around her.
When I said the actors in the lead roles (note the plural) give the film its spark, the inspired pairing of Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as Olive’s super-chilled parents almost manage to nick the film from under Stone’s lovely nose. There never has been and never will be parents in real life who are this much fun, but as well as an infectious line in naughty wisdom, they share real affection for each other and their children. (They have an adopted son, whose entire existence is to justify one magnificent gag). It’s a testament to the aforementioned quality of the character writing that it’s easy to see how much of Olive’s personality comes from them, making the family feel that vital touch more genuine than most. A heart-to-heart between Olive and her mother while watching the sunset over the California valley hits the holy grail of warmth and sincerity, then pulls out a brilliant line and gets one of the film’s biggest laughs. It’s a perfect example of everything the writing and performances get so right.
Unfortunately, outside the star-making central turn from Emma Stone and wonderful character comedy, Easy A stumbles when it comes to story. The performances paper over a lot of cracks, but you’d be hard-pressed not to concern yourself with a few of the liberties the film takes to keep its plot moving. Olive may be a wonderful character, but she’s a bit too wonderful for the role the film gives her at the start of the film: are we really expected to believe that this funny and gorgeous girl could ever be a nobody or short of male attention? Well-intentioned naivety may be her most notable flaw, but it’s equally difficult to believe someone so intelligent couldn’t see how the decisions she makes would lead to a rash end. By the time her ‘services’ have become so popular that she seems to be being propositioned by every nerd in the school, it seems enormously unlikely that word of what was going on wouldn’t have spread to the more popular cliques and revealing the whole situation. The goodwill the film and its stars generate is almost enough to let these questions slip under the carpet, but it is unfortunate that the writers didn’t work as hard on giving the story as much integrity as its characters.
The ending also marks a disappointing descent into formulaic predictability: Olive’s sudden concern for the lack of gentlemanly manners at her school springs up out of nowhere to justify an undercooked romance with bland former crush Todd (Penn Bagley in what is commonly called the girlfriend role). It may be a necessary evil – who wants a teen comedy without a coming-of-age romance? – but is an evil nevertheless, especially when so obviously thrown into the story for the sake of it. Such a concession to the habits of lesser films is doubly disappointing because so much here is a class above the drivel that has become emblematic of recent cinema comedy. If it sparks a resurgence in the genre of wiser and wittier material and gives Emma Stone the platform on which to build a career as the generation-defining comedienne she comfortably has the talent to become, we have much to thank the film for. Either for its potential legacy or as an experience in its own right, that A is well deserved.
Sean Walsh: 8.75 – Spectacular. A movie that wears its infatuation with the works of John Hughes and other teen movie staples on its sleeve, Easy A is smart, funny, and endlessly endearing. It performed admirably in theaters, and if co-writer Bert V. Royal has his way, there’s the possibility of two more classic literature-inspired films set in the same high school. Most importantly, Easy A could well be the beginning of a teen-movie Renaissance. We can only be so lucky.