I'm working on catching up with the fall releases over the next few weeks and this weekend I saw Easy A and The Town. I rather liked both of them, and oddly enough I found myself with more to say about Easy A. I think perhaps because there's a lot in there that represents the sort of writing that a reader like me is likely to find easy to support. It's a mainstream comedy all the way, and while I picture a few "serious drama" readers unsubscribing as they read that - the fact is, it's a GOOD mainstream script.
The premise is loosely based on The Scarlet Letter. A teenage girl named Olive rather unwittingly blunders into giving her best friend the impression that she lost her virginity over the weekend. Unfortunately this conversation is overheard by classmate Maryanne, the judgmental popular girl who takes joy in calling others out as sinners in order to feel superior. In less time than it takes to tell about it, she has spread the lie all over school and the still-virginal Olive is branded a whore.
Things take a turn when classmate Brandon appeals to Olive to use her bad reputation for good. Specifically, he asks her to pretend to have sex with him so that the (true) rumor about him being gay will be quelled and he'll no longer have to face bullying and harassment from the rest of the student body. Olive's not cool with this until he is practically in tears talking about how hard it is to be made a victim just because he's different. Olive, probably out of annoyance with her own unjust harassment, goes along with it.
Before long, all the guys in the school are coming to Olive and asking her to fake having sex with them. Some just want to stop rumors, some just want to seem cooler. By then, Olive's reputation is so shot that they wouldn't need her cooperation to get people to believe it, and so with that threat, she's persuaded to go along with the gag.
The sharp dialogue probably tops the list of things I liked here. Olive's a witty character without seeming like a QuipTron 3000, and here's a case where writer Bert V. Royal and actress Emma Stone deserve equal credit. It's one thing to write a heroine with a sharp tongue, but it takes a certain actress to convince the audience that said character actually would say those things. Emma spits out Royal's one-liners with ease and manages to come across as a normal teen at the same time. As we've seen with a few examples of Diablo Cody's weaker scenes, that's not an easy thing to do.
The secondary characters are equally sharp, and I have to give extra praise to Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson's characters, Olive's parents. Tucci alone has more quotables that most spec scripts I read these days. (Malcolm McDowell's cameo as a principal is also worth singling out, as he informs Olive, "I'm paid to keep girls off the pole and boys off the pipe. If I do that, I get a bonus.")
What else did I like about Easy A?
It's a female-driven teen comedy that has some bite. Those are RARE, folks. Female-driven movies in general are becoming rare, and when they are made for young audiences, the result is very safe fare like Hannah Montana or Nancy Drew. Their audience is younger girls rather than older teens and college-age kids.
It has several three-dimensional characters. Even better, not only does it pass the Bechdel Test - but in this script, arguably the guys are the ones who fail it, as Olive is at the center of everything. The girls have their own lives, but the guys are the ones relegated to the supporting roles. I don't see that often enough and the movie uses to good effect.
For those not in the know, these three questions are the Bechdel Test: Does the film have at least two women (with names)? Do those two women have dialogue together? Is that dialogue about something other than a man?
This doesn't mean that the guys are one-dimensional. One of the standouts is Dan Byrd's Brandon, who doesn't fit the mold as the typical gay teen. I'm a little tired of the "flaming homosexual" characters because their dialogue tends to be predictable and over-the-top. There are plenty of flamboyant gays, but the needs of the story require a closeted and more-restrained gay. Brandon isn't the sort of character who will ping many people's gaydar. He just wants to be left alone.
I think toning down Brandon's character also has the effect of making it easier for an audience to empathize with him. High school can be a weird time. Everyone wants to fit in, and no one really realizes that few people feel like they do. As the excellent Buffy episode "Earshot" demonstrated, it's very easy to feel alienated or like an outsider in school - just as it's easy for others to deflect their own pain by adding to someone else's. The script manages the tough balancing act of making Brandon's pain real without turning it into an afterschool special on tolerance. If you think that's easy, try it.
I know there are a few who have protested what they see as "Christian-bashing" via the antagonist Maryanne. I think that argument is an example of oversensitivity. You craft the antagonist to fit the hero. Olive's problem is that she's being persecuted by students with extremely Puritanical beliefs, much like The Scarlet Letter's Hester Prynne. Aside from the fact that making Maryanne Christian fits well with the parallels of the novel, can you name another group that makes it a fairly regular practice to condemn someone for their sexual history? Most decency and morality groups stem from a fairly Christian philosophy, so if you're building a lynch mob to attack a girl for loose morals, that is the most logical place to recruit them. (As anyone in California who saw the truly, truly deplorable pro-Prop 8 ads can attest.)
But I don't see it as "Christian-bashing." It's pretty well demonstrated that Maryanne's group of lemmings follow her because she's the popular girl, not because she's a Christian. There's also the fact that in a time of crisis, Olive actually turns to the church despite not being religious at all. Though this doesn't work out well - first she gives confession in an empty booth and then accidentally seeks counsel from a pastor who turns out to be Maryanne's father - it's enough for me to be satisfied that this film isn't an attack on all Christians, just the hypocritical and judgemental kind whom Maryanne resembles. I've met plenty of Christians who defy the stereotype, as well as a fair number of those who define it.
(And I get that Christians might be tired of being cast as villain in fictional works, but then I'm also pretty sure that gays are tired of being cast by Christians as the ultimate evil in real life.)
Frankly, I think some of those protests could have been avoided with better casting. It's easy to get the sense that there's more to Maryanne, but Amanda Bynes' performance is like pretty much everything else I've seen her in - twitchy, one-note and without much reality. I kept thinking that this girl was scripted as more of a religious Blair Waldorff and halfway through the film I started mentally editing the scenes to put Leighton Meester in the role. If you step back and look at Maryanne along those lines, you get a better sense that the problem isn't that she's a Christian - it's that she's a bitch.
It's self-referential without going too far - The film has a conceit that Olive is "narrating" via her webcam. Most of the time this sort of thing bugs me. Like, on Modern Family I'm forever asking "Who are they talking to in the 'interview scenes?' Is this supposed to be actually happening, or are these confessionals dramatic license?" Here, the film loops back and makes the webcam a part of the story. It also manages some sharp references to John Hughes movies without going too far. (And really, what teen hasn't compared their life to some movie they've seen?)
It's got an interesting timeliness - One of the main points of the story is how fast a rumor, or a lie, can spread in high school. With every student having a cell and Facebook, Twitter, and texting being so popular it takes no time at all for a lie to be spread to the whole student body. It doesn't just feel like everyone knows - everyone in school does know. It's hard to watch that this weekend and not think of those four suicides last week - the four cases where young homosexuals took their lives after being outed and/or humiliated for their sexual orientation over the web.
It's very much about how much damage a lie can do, and just how much modern technology can hurt people. Olive fortunately is an example of someone brave enough to withstand it. When it comes to fitting in in high school, your choices are pretty much "play the game" or "knock over the board and play by your own rules." I can see some girls being inspired by her moxie, perhaps drawing strength from that the next time a lie spreads about them.
It's got a message, but it's not preachy. There are some morals buried in this story if you look for them, but the script doesn't beat you over the head with it. There's a moment where Olive notes that once her bad rep got around, she was inundated with guys willing to pay her for fake-sex, but not one guy ever thought to ask her on a real date. After all, if she's so "easy," wouldn't one date be all it took to get some action? They'd rather pay for the lie than make a real move at achieving the truth. Is it because they consider Olive "damaged goods," not worthy of their respect?
At the end of the two hours, I walked out satisfied. My wife even mentioned she hadn't really enjoyed a movie that much in several months. It's clear Emma Stone's a star in the making, and director Will Gluck knows how to handle comedy. (I admit to having a soft spot for his Fired Up, which I think has been somewhat unfairly maligned.) And I certainly will be on the lookout for Bert Royal's next film, assuming that this theatrical release bears resemblance to the original script he wrote.
UPDATE - Over at Go Into The Story, Scott has a great piece called "Anatomy of a hit movie - Easy A."
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