“Easy A” is a clumsy but likable tribute to John Hughes’ ’80s teen flicks like “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” and “Ferris Buehler’s Day Off.” Likable because it deftly updates Hughes’ themes for contemporary times; clumsy because it’s bold-faced enough to actually admit that’s what it’s doing.
Emma Stone stars as Olive Penderghast, a witty (and virginal) high school student in sunny California. One day, she embellishes her otherwise dull weekend at home by telling her best friend about sleeping with a boy at a local community college. Olive enjoys the brief attention Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka), herself known for vague but persistent rumors of amorous encounters, pays her. Unfortunately, the fabrication is overheard by Marianne, the school Jesus freak, competently portrayed by Amanda Bynes. Soon Olive’s supposed reputation has spread throughout the student body, and the formerly unknown entity becomes infamous for “doing it.”
Olive’s popped cherry would have been a flavor-of-the-week at her school, but then her friend Brandon propositioned her — not for sex but rather to pretend to have sex. Brandon, convincingly played by Dan Byrd, is gay, and for some reason is tormented even at a California school where Rhiannon’s parents frequently eat dinner topless while guests twist their forks uncomfortably. Olive reluctantly agrees to fake a fling, and the next night they attend a raucous party, lock a bedroom door and proceed to jump on the bed, fake moan and muss each other’s hair as half the school listens at the keyhole. Brandon emerges with “proof” of his heterosexuality, to cheers and fist bumps; Olive performs the walk of shame, seemingly surprised at the double standard.
The story — and Olive’s reputation — quickly go downhill from there. A succession of losers slip Olive gift cards for the right to claim they got to second base or home plate; Olive doesn’t seem happy about this quasi-prostitution (complaining to one suitor about his payment of a 20 percent off coupon to Bed, Bath and Beyond, Olive asks, “Is that how much our imaginary tryst meant to you? I fake rocked your world.”), but she goes along with it as her infamy snowballs out of control.
The high school of “Easy A” is populated by teenagers who talk about sex but never seem to have it. Facebook is heard of but not seen. Olive’s villains, Marianne and her band of nitwit religious nuts, are laughably chipper and exuberant — and, as a scene depicting an actual picketing of Olive with signs reading “Jezebel” and “Slut” proves, they have a lot of time on their hands.
Written by Bert V. Royal and directed by Will Gluck, “Easy A” benefits from some quality performances and strikes plenty of humorous notes. Olive’s supportive but hands-off parents, expertly played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, drop plenty of witty repartee with their daughter. Byrd’s performance of the closeted Brandon is as compelling as any character gets. And Stone shines while dropping comical yet alluring nostalgia bombs, including, “I always thought pretending to lose my virginity would have been a little more special. Judy Bloom should have prepared me for that.”
Unfortunately, there’s entirely too much else going on in this cluttered, overly short homage. Aside from those aforementioned truly excellent performances, the remainder of the cast are merely competent stock characters, including the crusading Christian girl, the jealous ex-best friend, the cougaresque guidance counselor and the gratuitously shirtless-slash-obvious knight in shining armor (Penn Badgley), who pops up from time to time as a beacon who forms his opinion of Olive based on his experience with her rather than unsubstantiated gossip. Olive’s webcam narrative, a framing device for the film, is tritely sprinkled throughout, leaving no reflection or analysis unsaid, including Olive’s penchant for Hughesian love stories.
Worse, the film is bogged down with a number of poorly thought-out and ultimately inconsequential side plots. The popular English teacher (Thomas Hayden Church) whose guidance counselor wife (Lisa Kudrow) cheats on him with a student receives no real closure. The vitriolic Marianne essentially fades away. Olive’s foray into religious guidance provides little more than an obvious confessional gag and a brief but entertaining cameo from Fred Armisen.
Tragically, “Easy A” buys into a similar moral as the Puritanical novel loosely tied in through grainy black-and-white footage, “The Scarlet Letter.” The school shuns Olive for her supposed promiscuity, and at no point does anyone stop to argue that perhaps it’s her own business and certainly not a problem requiring a loud protest by the parking lot. Whether in the seventeenth century or the twenty-first, the gender binary remains pronounced, a double standard remains in place and sex remains a dirty act for women and a studly one for men.
With its pop culture references and talented cast, “Easy A” strives to add up to more than the sum of its parts; however, at the end of the day, two plus two still equals four. Fortunately, four is pretty good by itself.