Silver Screen: Easy A ***1/2

Silver Screen: Easy A  ***1/2
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Silver Screen: Easy A ***1/2
Bryan Miller

The broadly appealing teen comedy Easy A isn't so much a retelling of The Scarlet Letter-- not in the way that the movie's cinematic godmother, Clueless, was a modernization of Jane Austen's Emma-- but rather it's a riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic about social ostracization and hypocrisy.

The even more broadly appealing Emma Stone stars as Olive, an improbably unpopular straight-arrow high-school student with a wallflower reputation and a non-existent love life. To silence her pushy best friend, Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka), she lies about her latest dull weekend home alone, refashioning it as a weekend-long tryst with a college freshman. The tall tale is overheard by high-strung evangelical Christian Marianne (Amanda Bynes), who disdainfully spreads the story. Thanks to some enhancement from the rumor mill, the lie becomes even more salacious, and suddenly Olive is cast by her peers as mysteriously sexy.

But that leads to a second lie: Partly to help her barely closeted gay buddy Brandon (Dan Byrd), and partly because she enjoys the newfound attention, she fakes sex a second time, in this case at a well-attended house party. The goal is to dupe the jocks who bully Brandon into thinking he's not gay so they'll lay off, but the secondary effect is that Olive begins to get a reputation as a bit of a slut.

Both enraged and empowered by the reaction from her peers, Olive keeps the ruse going, pretending to sleep with various nerds, schlubs, and losers to help them bolster her reputation. (Somewhat creepily, they all pay the pretend puta for her services.) The rumors start to spin out of Olive's control, though, and combined with backlash from Marianne's prayer-circle group, our faux-hussy heroine soon finds herself ostracized from polite teen society, a pariah among jealous and intimidated girls-- including her best bud Rhiannon-- and an increasingly debased object of desire among the awed, horny guys.

It's risqué fodder for a teen movie, pushing the boundaries of honesty about sex among teens in the same ways as the John Hughes movies that Olive so prominently admires. In fact, the movie seems engineered specifically to piss off the conservative set with its in-your-face bawdiness, incessant mockery of the faithful, and throwaway political digs. But the naughtiness-- in the story, the zippy dialogue, and also in Olive's increasingly scandalous wardrobe-- gives the movie a welcome edge.

Though it's not quite up to the standards of Clueless and Mean Girls, like both of those films Easy A is a movie squarely aimed at teenage girls that's absolutely smart and funny enough to work for a much wider audience. The rapid-fire dialogue is dense with jokes and cultural allusions, witty more often than not, and reminiscent of the speedy patter of Gilmore Girls. Like its saucy protagonist, the movie has the brains to match its quips, too, and it nicely applies the themes of The Scarlet Letter without needing to ape its plot machinations. The mild updating of Hawthorne's themes turns out to be easily applicable to high-school life (and beyond, even), where a puritanical double-standard still exists between guys who are socially rewarded for following their hormones while the girls are castigated for the same behavior. It's a kick to watch Olive, defiant and empowered, strutting around school with a big red "A" pinned to her shirt.

Occasionally Easy A does threaten to disappear into its own quirkiness. This is never more true than when Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, playing Olive's laissez-faire parents, are onscreen. Tucci and Clarkson are both phenomenal comic actors, but their parts are drastically overwritten. While the rest of the film dabbles at the edges of high-school fantasy, Tucci and Clarkson seem to have come from some entirely different, cartoonish world; every sentence they utter is zanier and more improbable than the last, as though they spent all their afternoons scripting self-consciously witty back-and-forths that will perfectly showcase their eccentricities. As such, they come off like the nicest, worst parents in the world, allowing Olive so much freedom that it starts to become creepy.

While Tucci and Clarkson's characters are overwritten, poor supporting player Thomas Haden Church is saddled with a likeable but underwritten part as Olive's favorite teacher. Church's droll delivery and laid-back vibe make him ideal as the hip English teacher leading a disinterested class through The Scarlet Letter, and his character becomes significant to the plot when his wife, a secretive guidance counselor (Lisa Kudrow), decides to intervene in Olive's affairs. But he never gets enough screen time to develop a relationship with any of the characters.

Despite its minor faults, though, Easy A is a distinctive, winning comedy. Director Will Gluck's real secret weapon is his starlet. Stone, in her first leading role, is wonderful, convincingly smart enough to play the precocious Olive and possessing great comic timing. She's a pretty girl who doesn't have to fall back on that prettiness to be charming, nor does she err in the other direction and try to mug her way through the jokes. This will almost certainly be the first of many starring roles for her; here's hoping the rest of her material is at least this good.