“Easy A” Fails to Make the Grade

The Slutty Main Character Paradox is loosely defined by two irreconcilable desires within a film. The first is for the main character to be, or appear to be, an amoral “slut” (according to our common-sense idea of what a “slut” is). The other desire is for the main character to be likable, for the film to make money and for the actress not to appear as a whore. Will Gluck’s latest teen comedy, “Easy A,” is a case study in just how much a movie can suffer as a result of this paradox.

Gluck’s developing style is to take an uninspired premise, like a modern remake of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” and shoehorn it into a done-to-death style of film, like a romantic teen comedy-of-errors, while making his characters comment endlessly on the aforementioned uninspired premise and done-to-death style. In short, it’s comedy-by-numbers with several competent performances from cast members you can’t help but feel sorry for.

Emma Stone (“Zombieland,” “Paper Man”) stars as Olive, an unpopular high school student who spreads her time between chatting with her aggressive best friend, Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka) and social networking. When she pretends to have lost her virginity (when she was really at home all weekend) and gabs about it to Rhiannon in the ladies’ room, all hell breaks loose. The school’s leading Christian fundamentalist, Marianne (Amanda Bynes), overhears everything and, by the time Olive walks to class, she’s already the sluttiest slut in the school.

Before long, she realizes that she can use her status as a pariah to do some good (and make some money) by pretending to sleep with the local closeted gay teen, Brandon (Dan Byrd), at a big party full of sexy teens. (As an aside, Will Gluck seems right at home jamming teenagers’ breasts into the audience’s face, always a welcome distraction from the story.) As Olive gets deeper and deeper into pretending, she is kissing, groping and sleeping with the school’s many undesirables; her reputation grows beyond her control; and she consults her sarcastic English teacher, Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church) and his wife, the school guidance counselor, played by Lisa Kudrow.

Oh, and by the way, she has a love interest: the school mascot played by “Gossip Girl” star Penn Badgley. I mention him as an afterthought because he appears only as an afterthought. He exists solely to give the film a happy ending. That is, the entire film is framed as Olive’s grand webcast confessional, where she reveals to the entire Internet that she is not really a slut. This returns us, finally, to the Slutty Main Character Paradox and the big failures of “Easy A.”

The movie strives to be amoral. In fact, what it wants, more than anything in the world, is to embrace that cool nihilism of the teen movie “bad boy” (who is reborn here in the form of Olive), but it just can’t pull it off.

Even as a remake of “The Scarlet Letter,” where the enemy is cold, vicious Puritan morality, the film can’t help but make Olive the wittiest, smartest and most moral character in the entire movie. The film also can’t properly teach its lead Christian a lesson (like, you know, by making her pregnant or something). Instead, Marianne’s big stupid boyfriend sleeps with the guidance counselor, but it’s okay, like everything in the movie is okay, because he is of legal age.

The film, just like Olive, is incapable of ever, taking a real chance. Olive’s idea of dressing risqué is to wear a bustier-like tank top with her jeans. The film’s idea of being subversive is to use some potty language and have the gay teen run away with “a big hulking black guy.” Which was, perhaps, the most annoying development of the entire movie because it is the single most important development in the film, giving Olive the space to reveal that she isn’t actually slutting around for money.

Marginally less painful were the performances of the cast’s veteran actors. Most notable are Malcolm McDowell (“A Clockwork Orange”) as the stuffy British principal and Thomas Haden Church, who both lend their considerable talents to a bad comedy designed to boost Emma Stone’s star power before she tries her hand at more serious roles.

In short, if you’re old enough to remember comedies like “Clueless” or “10 Things I Hate About You,” stay away from this confused mess of over-stylized stupidity. If you’re not, this may be the film of the season for you.