In Easy A, Emma Stone plays an unassuming high-school student who flouts taboos without really breaking them. That makes her the perfect heroine for a movie that knows the rules of high-school comedies, tweaks them, but still colors within the lines. In one early scene, for instance, a caring, caustic English teacher played by Thomas Haden Church asks a student to throw him a beat, and starts rapping a critique of The Scarlet Letter. He then stops cold and dismisses that sort of thing as the stuff of bad teen movies. He’s right, of course, but so is the sort of glib superficiality that keeps Easy A floating, however pleasantly, over the surface of issues it wants to explore.
Which is too bad, because the film is at its best when it isn’t afraid to be earnest. The script, by debuting writer Bert V. Royal, alternates between genuinely witty touches and dialogue that just has the cadences of wit. Between the rapid-fire bon mots and the equally breathless editing, the film’s characters scarcely have room to breathe. Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, for instance, are always welcome, but their quippy turns as Stone’s parents feel like they’re working from a parenting manual penned by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Happily, Easy A has two strong elements in its favor: heart, and Stone’s terrific lead performance.
Stone plays a socially marginalized straight-arrow who chooses to let some false rumors about her sexual promiscuity spread, partly because she doesn’t really care what people think of her, and partly because she likes the attention. As notoriety turns to ostracism, Stone starts wearing a red “A” in tribute to Hawthorne’s sexual outcast, though the connections between the two works don’t go much deeper than that. The plot unrolls predictably, but beneath the machinations, thinly conceived religious bad guys, and hit-or-miss one-liners, Easy A has a deep concern with sexual double standards and the shunning that awaits those who don’t conform to them, from gay kids to sexually assertive girls to dateless introvert boys. Stone plays the part with the right mix of sourness and vulnerability, drawing power from everyone’s false assumptions as she vamps down the hallways one moment, appearing overwhelmed by the same assumptions the next. Her performance is only just enough to sustain the film through its creaky, increasingly cartoonish back half, but it suggests she’ll be carrying better movies before long.