Easy A is a romantic comedy set in high school that is a loose retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter. Now, if you’re a follower of this blog, you’ll know I’m a sucker for retellings of classics. Nevertheless, I didn’t think I’d enjoy this movie going in. For one thing, The Scarlet Letter is not classic because of the story it tells. It’s classic because of the way that it’s told. The characters are so good, so heartfelt, that their pain and suffering radiates off the page and makes the reader empathize, even though the reader may know going in exactly how the story goes and therefore probably doesn’t want to empathize at all.
So I honestly didn’t expect more than a third-rate, not-very-funny comedy that made a fool of itself by not understanding its own source material on more than a superficial level. And all this simply because it was set in a modern high school.
I’m so glad that I watched it anyway (although, in the interest of honesty, I didn’t; I walked in on some friends watching it, and then joined them for the heck of it, after which I had to go back and rewatch it from the beginning because I’d enjoyed it so much).
You can find a dozen summaries and reviews, and you’ll find that the general trend is that people either love or hate this film. To be fair, it isn’t a very deep movie. It’s also less of a retelling it is a teenager’s interpretation of the classic influencing her everyday life. So Hawthorne fans, sorry: this is probably not the movie for you.
What this movie really comes down to, as you may have guessed by the way I chose to title this post, is Emma Stone. Her character is a sassy, sardonic, playful, well-read, kind-hearted nobody that is easy to identify with, and also easy to love without heading remotely in the direction of a Mary Sue. Or rather, I think that in the hands of most other rom-com actresses, she would have been a Mary Sue. But Emma Stone had the talent to make her come alive in a way that I’ve never seen a character come alive in a romantic comedy.
I don’t think that it would be an exaggeration to say that Emma Stone and the life that she brought to her character were what made this movie. Just as many agree that the first Pirates of the Caribbean film would have been a small success that quickly faded into obscurity without what Johnny Depp brought to Jack, Easy A would have been a silly little satirical yet unappealing piece without what Emma Stone brought to Olive.
Emma Stone has this comedic, lively energy that makes the viewer follow her with relish. With the exception of the first choice, which was a small lie that I think many people can identify with, Olive makes the choices that she makes not out of selfishness or thoughtlessness, but out of empathy. At some point during the course of the film, she even seems so alone, so ostracized that surely the loneliness must be too much for her to keep caring—and yet she does. She keeps on taking the fall for other people’s insecurities and mistakes.
It has to be said, though, that the genius of this film is in Olive’s final choice. Because on some level, I think that those of us who were watching with Hawthorne’s book fresh on our minds expected to see her continue spiraling downwards until tragedy struck in some shape, way or form, making people regret what they had done to her. But instead, when faced with real, physical threats because of the lies that she has told, and realizing that there could be more to her life, Olive chooses to take matters into her own hands and fix her own life at the expense of all the other lives that she’s been taking the fall for.
On some level, one could argue, this is a very selfish choice, and her thoughtless wrecking of other people’s lives is not at all in keeping with the parallels that had been building up between Olive and Heather. But on the other hand, where the Western world was once upon a time a place where the greatest goal in life was to be good and kind no matter what it cost you, it is now a place where people have to stand up for themselves if they want anything at all. The crux of Heather’s story is only as touching as it is because she ultimately does receive the recognition she’d always deserved for being as good as she was. Olive’s story, however, could never have ended that way. Even if she had continued to take the fall for people and ultimately somehow been killed…none of the characters that she has taken the fall for are remotely grateful (except for Brandon, the first one, but he ran off with a hulking black man in a repeated homoerotic reference to Huckleberry Finn). Who among them would have stood up to show the world, at his own expense, that she was really nothing that anyone had said that she was?
Maybe it’s my own personal frustration with the way that popular culture encourages us to wait for other people to come save us at no benefit to themselves but the knowledge that they have done right. This movie, though perhaps more cynical in its message than some would like, felt more realistic to me. Even though Olive is a high school girl, even adults are all too happy to saddle her with the repercussions of their own mistakes. They express their gratitude when she agrees, but when she changes her mind, they refuse to help her. Ultimately, she is forced to make the choice between their happiness or her own—and she chooses her own. I don’t find this decision selfish at all: I find it a realistic realization that no matter how much you want to help people, ultimately, taking away their problems at your own expense doesn’t help anyone. Eventually, everyone that Olive helped still has their own problems to deal with even after they’ve been piled up as Olive’s reputation: from simple physical insecurities to STIs and adultery.
I love this film and it’s what turned me into a huge Emma Stone fan. But I’m not going to rate it. There was nothing particularly bad about it, but my high opinion of this film hinges pretty hugely on Emma Stone’s presence. I still take my hat off to the actors who portrayed Olive’s family as well, because nothing beats that quirky bunch of lightheartedness that reminds the viewers that through all the trials that she faces, Olive is never truly alone because her family is always there no matter what.
Maybe it’s not the deepest, most poignant thing you’ve ever watched. But as a funny teen movie with a message about accepting people for whom they are, it’s a joy.
**SPOILERS IN THE PARAGRAPH BELOW**
Side note here: I understand that some people were very, very upset about the message they perceived in the initial fake relationship between Olive and Brandon (the closeted gay). But while it’s not overtly stated, I find that the ultimate message as that this made no one happy. Brandon ran away with his lover after coming out to his parents, and thereby became the only person who wasn’t harmed when Olive told the whole truth. It shows us, I think, that ultimately the only happy people are the ones who have come to accept themselves for whom they are. With the exception of the English teacher Mr. Griffith, whom I loved as a character and feel exceedingly bad for, since he’s the only character who ends this film with no happy ending in sight even though he was nothing but awesome throughout the film, and especially to Olive.