Monday, September 20, 2010

FILM REVIEW: Emma Stone's "Easy A"

When a new up-and-comer pops up onto Hollywood's radar, it takes a few films, cameos, bit parts, and supporting roles before they are given the ultimate test: carrying a film on their own. This test can make or break the actor's career.

A fortunate few get a pre-test, a PSAT of filmmaking: starring in an indie. Jesse Eisenberg held his own in the suspenseful The Education of Charlie Banks and impressed critics in the coming-of-age drama Adventureland before scoring one of the most controversial roles of one of this fall's most talked about dramas, The Social Network. But some actors, like Chloe Moretz, jump in head first: a cameo in the heartbreakingly funny (500) Days of Summer, a supporting role in the action-packed Kick-Ass, and now a starring role in the remade thriller Let Me In. This method is not always advised—just ask Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief) and Megan Fox (Jennifer's Body). But it does seem to be working for Emma Stone.

The 21-year-old Arizona native first caught our attention in Superbad, while taking one in the head like a champ and falling for the chubby sidekick. Then she perfected her comic timing as a dorky sorority girl in The House Bunny and a spirit guide in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and honed her tough girl act as a guitar player in The Rocker and a shot gun-toting con artist in Zombieland. Most execs would say she was prime to take on a supporting role opposite some established young leading man, like Shia Labeouf, Sam Worthington, Joseph Gordon Levitt, or even Liam Hemsworth (The Last Song). Thankfully, however, we were spared the typical chick roles and the parade of zany rom-coms and presented with something a little more substantial.

In Easy A, Stone plays Olive, a book-smart teen who's more mature than her peers, both academically and psychologically. Due to her superiority, she is the ultimate outsider: a voyeur. Her big picture perspective exempts her from thinking it's cute to call her bff "Bitch" as a term of endearment, bowing at the feet of the most popular girl in school, and turning a blind eye to homophobic hate crimes. Of course, she does have one flaw. Because of her lack of social experience and general hermit lifestyle, she, like most outcasts, craves acknowledgement. But instead of stereotypically puffing when they pass a joint or piercing every visible part of herself, she decides to make a flamboyant statement. She turns the sexualization and objectification of her gay classmate into the sexualization and objectification of the teenage girl, by pretending to have loud sex with her victimized classmate Brandon (Dan Byrd from "Cougar Town" and "Aliens in America") during a party so everyone can spread the word of his heterosexuality.

Technically, giving into social expectation isn't taking a stand against homophobia, but it is taking one against the double standard that girls who sleep around should be ashamed while boys who sleep around should be worshiped. The next day, when one of the Jesus-loving virginity-advocates tells Olive she should wear an A on her chest just like Hester Prynne in the The Scarlet Letter, she amplifies her defiance by buying a bunch of trashy bustiers, sewing red A's on all of them, and basically wearing a perpetual "Fuck you!" to school every day.

She's suppose to be the modern independent (future) woman—indifferent to social standards and resistant to gender stereotypes—but this wouldn't be a film if there wasn't some conflict. While initially it preaches an end to homophobia and to gender inequality, it ultimately aims to teach Olive—and the sexually overt girls she's pretending to be like—a lesson: just because it's a double standard doesn't mean you could/should get away with it. The secret to having the best of both worlds is keeping that part of your life private, because really it's nobody's business. (Celebrities and sexting teens everywhere, please take note.)

Such an agenda can be perceived as a generic after-school special on paper, but newcomer Bert V. Royal peppered the dialogue with enough sarcasm and clever one-liners to make it smart enough for adults too. I only have two gripes with the film. The first is with the supporting cast members/characters/choices. Those are three different cases, because some people were bad actors, some had poorly written characters, and some were just not cast in the right role.

Amanda Bynes and Cam Gigandet (Twilight) were so campy, it was like they were on the set of "iCarly"...which would be fine, if the movie was actually campy. While Bynes is failing miserably at reinventing herself, Gigandet is attempting to branch out of the "buff-and-angry" roles he's normally cast in. Unfortunately, he wasn't very convincing as the "'saved' sexual deviant who cries at the drop of a hat." Lisa Kudrow ("Friends"), however, was not only poorly cast, but also stuck with a character that was poorly written. She purely served to drive the plot and it seemed a little forced. One minute she's someone interesting enough to snag the cool English teacher (Thomas Haden Church from Sideways) and the next she's a dismissive guidance counselor with a dark secret and a self-serving agenda. Her character had to be in order to officially destroy Olive's reputation, but it was rushed through so quickly, it seemed like a last-minute addition when it was probably just poorly setup.

There were a few gems in the cast though. Byrd, with practically 10 minutes on screen, managed to outshine the leading man (Penn Badgley from "Gossip Girl"), having the best exchanges with Olive and the best scene of the film (simulated sex scene).  

Badgley did, however, succeed in doing what Gigandet didn't, shedding his vanity and playing a goofy character. If you're a GG fan, I know what you're thinking. Isn't he already self-deprecating and funny as Dan? Yes, but Dan doesn't wear a costume in almost every scene, psychotically wailing as a painted blue devil, adorably waddling around in a beaver suit, or shamelessly singing "Happy Birthday" at a chain restaurant with a lobster on his head. Badgely's character Todd, (a.k.a. Woodchuck Todd and Lobster Todd) was as far away from cool as you can possibly get without clipping on a pocket protector and hoisting up your pants with suspenders. He wasn't your average teen love interest. He was neither worshiped by every girl in school or so insecure he couldn't ask out the girl of his dreams or a rebel who was too stubborn to expressing his feelings. He was just as well-adjusted and self-aware as Olive, which was refreshing.

Also managing to step out of her comfort zone was pop singer Alyson Michalka. Before her CW series "Hellcats" hit TV this fall, her largest role was the barely-seen teen indie Bandslam. Instead of continuing down the a-typical sweet blonde actress path of Reese Witherspoon or Kate Bosworth, she hilariously and believably plays Olive's skanky bff, who calls her "bitch" and "shit face" out of love, has nudists for parents, and acts immature enough without being over-the-top.

Olive's parents, played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson (Shutter Island), were also refreshingly awesome. Parents are rarely, if ever, worth mentioning in a teen movie. Most of the time, they're not even in the movie no matter how much trouble their kids get in. But Tucci and Clarkson were the perfect addition to the cast, and their characters were so good they canceled out the ones that weren't. Tucci got the first big laugh in my theater when he feigned shock that his black son knew he was adopted, and Clarkson scored with both her playful indifference to her son's high spelling-test grade, claiming that spell check has made that inconsequential, and with her mother-daughter talks about her wild and promiscuous childhood, getting a little too graphic for anyone who's ever been traumatized by their parents' sex life.
But they were their best when they were together: non-judgmentally asking why their daughter was dressing like a high class escort, requesting that she use her peas to spell out the derogatory term she got sent to the guidance counselor's office for using, and over-dramatizing the first time she has a boy in her room. They were like a healthy mix of the embarrassing hands-on moms in The Kids are Alright and Rory's sarcastic, laidback parents in "Gilmore Girls."

My second gripe with the film is the ending. The beginning starts with Olive doing a live broadcast online explaining what happened and why. That was a cool modern way of initiating a flashblack-structured film without only implementing voice-over. (And Olive's hand-written chapter titles were a nice touch too.) The structure was great. The climax was great. And each plot-driven event was fairly unpredictable...except for the ending. I know. It's suppose to end happily. She gets the guy. She clears her name. She maintains her self-respect and regains her dignity. Of course. But throughout the film there were a few meta moments leading to a cop-out ending.

Olive is a huge fan of John Hughes movies. She wishes her life were like one (who doesn't?), but she's painfully aware it isn't. So painfully aware she seems hellbent on making it like one, bucking the system (The Breakfast Club), orchestrating an awesomely random public performance (Ferris Bueller's Day Off), and getting her iconic declaration-of-love end scene. Unfortunately, instead of creating a unique one, to match the unique plot, character, and story setup, the writer opted for poaching from not one but two 80s rom-coms. I don't want to give it away (even though you can probably guess one of them by the photo), but neither one are from a Hughes film. I think I would've been more forgiving if they were though. I understand that that final moment is hard to fabricate—not everybody can borrow a baseball field (Never Been Kissed) or slide down a sculpture (Drive Me Crazy)—but originality is always appreciated, and homages are generally perceived as lazy writing.

Ultimately, I'd say this was a pretty enjoyable film and a huge stepping stone for the leading lady—no pun intended.

Grade: (an easy) B

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