'Easy A' (PG-13)

Not every moment of Easy A earns a passing grade, but what works in this edgy teen comedy works spectacularly well. Borrowing ideas from Mean Girls and Saved, with somewhat clumsy allusions to The Scarlet Letter, the movie tackles always-relevant issues – that pesky sexual double standard, the way even the sharpest teenage girls devalue themselves, the dangers of gossip, the difficulty of taking responsibility for your mistakes – while being smart, irreverant and funny as hell.

A lot of the credit for the film’s success lands squarely on the slim shoulders of the terrific Emma Stone, last seen taking up arms against the undead in Zombieland. Here, as high-school student Olive, her weapons are different and somewhat less effective, at least in the short run. Olive wields a savage wit, a formidable vocabulary and keen intelligence, none of which can save her from poor judgment and bad luck. Exasperated by a friend’s needling, she confesses to losing her virginity to a college boy. The story is a lie; like all extraordinarily attractive young women in teen movies, Olive doesn’t even seem to date.

But the lie is overheard by Christian do-gooder Marianne (Amanda Bynes), and the story spreads across campus faster than you can say “Text me.” Worse, generous Olive agrees to help out a gay friend who wants to save himself grief by pretending he slept with her. Pretty soon, all the outcasts are lining up to pay for pretending to use her services.

The real twist, the one that elevates Easy A beyond its teen-comedy roots, is that as Olive becomes notorious, she begins, in a perverse way, to enjoy the attention. She’s always felt invisible. Now she’s in the spotlight, and even if the starring role doesn’t seem to capture the attention of her crush Todd (the handsome but bland Penn Badgley, who is no John Cusack with a boom box), at least everybody else is looking.

Easy A is unnecessarily hard on the religious kids. Unlike Saved, it uses broad caricatures of gospel-singing fanatics to get laughs, and the bug-eyed, over-the-top performance by Bynes (who apparently really should have retired after making this film) doesn’t help matters. Other broad comic bits – Olive and her gay friend’s faking orgasm, for example – go on far longer than even the most juvenile viewer will think is funny.

But director Will Gluck understands how a strong supporting cast can transform a comedy. Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson are perfectly cast as Olive’s bright, liberal-minded parents; you can see where she gets her quick wit and confidence. And Thomas Haden Church is hilarious as the English teacher puzzled and disturbed by Olive’s conversion from good student to vamp. A teenage girl sewing an A on her slutty new clothes – for “awesome,” she announces – is more than a little ridiculous, but Stone makes the act seem possible. If nothing else, Easy A should be a breakout role for her. She’s an A-plus.

Cast: Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Thomas Haden Church, Dan Byrd, Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci, Malcolm McDowell.

Director: Will Gluck.

Screenwriter: Bert V. Royal.

Producers: Zanne Devine, Will Gluck.

A Screen Gems release. Running time: 92 minutes. Mature thematic elements involving teen sexuality, language, some drug material. Playing at area theaters.


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