In a metaphorical sense, our contemporary culture walks around with a sandwich board over its chest, selling their ideas, their thoughts, their banalities, and their actions in a painfully self-reflective sense. People no longer express their affection for, say, Wes Anderson out of true appreciation; they do it as a means to say something about themselves. Twitter, Facebook, and the rest of our social media has created such an intensely self-reflexive culture that no one can hear anyone else over their own goddamn voices, and the irony is, the more self-reflexive we become, the less our own self-reflective actions mean. It’s a culture of self-possessed myopia: Nobody cares about the label you’re wearing on your T-shirt because they’re too busy caring about the label on their own fucking shirt. If you look at Twitter on any given day, you’ll find millions of people essentially having conversations with themselves, and they’re not looking for engagement so much as they are seeking validation for their own opinions about themselves.
It’s a circular nightmare, and it’s one that become a part of film, too. Everything has seemingly been done to death, so instead of coming up with original ideas, filmmakers recycle other people’s ideas, and put their own spin on it. But it’s not really their own spin, either; it’s someone else’s spin, filtered through their own, and then mashed up into different genres. Thanks to a marketing environment that encourages it, no one wants to be original. They want to be the next Tarantino … of romantic comedies. Or the Hitchcock … of farce.
Out of this culture comes Will Gluck’s wonderful, fantastic, adorable Easy A, a teen comedy that borrows elements from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and makes half a dozen nods to the Hughesian comedies of the ’80s. And yet, it does it in a refreshingly non-reflexive way. Will Gluck pays homage, but — despite what you might hear from others who don’t know the difference between a reference and wholesale theft — he doesn’t make a John Hughes film. Emma Stone, despite the red hair, is not the next Molly Ringwald. She’s Emma Stone. And Easy A is about as close to a John Hughes’ comedy as Stone is to Ringwald. The similarities end with the hair color.
Easy A is a 21st century teen comedy, and maybe the first really good one at that. It doesn’t borrow the archetypes of those ’80s standard bearers — there’s no expositional scene establishing where the various cliques are seated at the lunch table. It presents high school for what I expect it must be now: an amorphous body of singular cliques — teenagers too busy self-identifying to align with anyone else, except in such a way as to self-identify. And so they selfishly align with Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone), a self-proclaimed nobody who is not really a nobody. You know she’s not because, when she lies to her best friend about losing her virginity, everyone in the school knows it by the end of the day. And they know it because possessing that information — and exaggerating it — is their way of valuing their own self-worth, which no one cares about because their only concern is with themselves.
Olive is the exception to this self-reflexivity; she allows her own reputation to suffer by letting others believe they sullied her sexually. Olive becomes the school slut, while the fat guy, the gay guy, and the dweeb get to claim they had sex with her, which allows them to bolster their own reputations. It’s an exchange that works for a while, until the Saved contingent — to boost their own self-righteous worth — gets involved, and the lies stack on top of the lies, someone gets chlamydia, and Will Gluck’s story sort of falls in on itself.
Fortunately, Easy A is not a narrative-driven movie — there’s no satisfyingly climactic comeuppance in the end where the captain of the football team gets punched in the nose with either a fist or a “What is normal”? speech. It’s a character-driven movie, and Gluck is perfectly content to use the The Scarlet Letter not as an outline for his story, but as a stage upon which Emma Stone performs. And she is ungodly good: funny, sweet, charming, and radiant. She tries just a little bit too hard in such a way that endears her to us because by God she’s trying. Her liberal, permissive parents — played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson — are outstanding, amusing and concerned, but not nosy or pushy. They’re a little too good to be true, but they’re so fantastically winsome that you don’t care.
In the end, you know it’s not a John Hughes comedy because Olive doesn’t fall over herself for another guy — there’s a love interest (Penn Badgley), but he’s practically a background character. She doesn’t get the gang together and devise a plan. There are no grand romantic gestures. This is Emma Stone’s movie, and the story is that of Olive’s, and how she got herself into a mess and got herself out of it (a little too cheap and easy, perhaps, but that’s hardly the point). Easy A is more about a vibe, about a sense of humor, and Gluck — working from a Bert V. Royal script — maintains the sharp wit throughout. It’s clever, tongue-in-cheek without being smug, and whip-fucking smart. It may be the Ferris Bueller of this generation, but make no mistake: It’s not Ferris Bueller.
Indeed, Emma Stone has created something practically unheard of: A unique character, one to which teen comedy directors 30 years from now may be paying homage.