Movie Review: Easy A

Bringing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” to a high school setting sounds like it could be fun, and with Emma Stone finally getting a lead film role, it is. In fact, her and a lot of the other actors are too good for “Easy A.” Its blatant attempt to achieve Mean Girls-level pop culture quotability would be fine if it actually did that. There are a few fun zingers and some great death glares (by Amanda Bynes and Stone), but writer Brett Royal is no Tina Fey.

This is never more evident in the movie’s proclaimed mockery of itself. Our protagonist often remarks how absurdly cliche a lot of the plot points are, which doesn’t make them less so. It’s always up to a formulaic movie like this to be levitated by its actors, and this one slightly is.

Stone gives a breakout lead performance that has everyone predictably raving. Until now her biggest claims to fame were scene-stealing “girl of my dreams” roles in “Superbad” and “Zombieland.” In “Easy A,” she finally gets to push back in the lead. When a rumor starts spreading that she’s the school bicycle after she lies about having sex with a college guy, she rolls with it. They are reading “The Scarlet Letter” in English class, after all. Soon, she’s doing favors for guy friends by lying about having sex with them to shield them from ridicule.

Per usual, her plot spirals out of control, and she isn’t old or mature enough to handle it. That’s too bad, because Stone’s Olive is the only one capable of putting it all to rest. A few confrontations with the school Jesus freak (Bynes) and the horny guidance counselor (Lisa Kudrow) later, and she’s dressed in lingerie and pledging webcam penetration in front of the whole school after doing a scandalous musical number.

The way all of these different elements mesh together is the movie’s biggest and most glaring fault. There are times when it wants to be serious and then insists on going back to its comedy like nothing ever happened. This is most notable in the scenes with Kudrow’s guidance counselor and her English teacher husband (Thomas Hayden Church). Distracting subplot aside, these two terrific comedic actors deserved better from the screenplay. Instead of pumping out one-liners like the Patricia Clarkson/Stanley Tucci parental dream-team, they’re blasted to bad melodrama purgatory.

There’s a moment in this John Hughes-wannabe that actually lives up to its intentions. Daughter and mother sit on a car overlooking a valley, comparing high school reputations and laughing while the world around them sleeps. It’s an evolution of the Hughes parent-child relationship. For a moment, they understand each other. The rest of the movie, unfortunately, is far behind.

Other than Kudrow and Hayden Church, the rest of the cast is pretty well utilized. Stone, Clarkson and Tucci are the glorious runner-ups. Their chemistry as an on-screen family is by far the movie’s strongest asset, maybe even its saving grace. As the perpetuator of rumors, Bynes makes an admirable return to screen comedies playing Marianne.

Another distraction from this movie’s focus other than the melodramatic side-quests is the love story. Director Will Gluck can’t seem to decide if he wants it in there at all, but knows it has to be to sell the thing. So here is Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley appearing for maybe a total of 15 minutes in the entire movie, here to sweep our troubled heroine off her feet in the third act.

Trying to cram all of these devices into a teen comedy that Hughes did so effortlessly is where modern comedies fail, including this one. Where they succeed is the whip-smart dialogue and interesting character interactions. “Easy A” is an easy sell to studios because it can exploit many different audiences with one trailer, then fail to deliver on any of them once you’re in the theater.

Grade: C-