Easy A gets A+ for character, but C- for story

by Allen Palmer on October 7, 2010

in Film analysis, Screenwriting tips, Story structure

Easy A Movie Poster Emma Stone Olive Penderghast

I am a big fan of the high school film. Grease. 10 Things I Hate About You. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. American Pie. Pretty in Pink. Superbad. Say Anything. Fast Times at Ridgemont High. So when Easy A received so many incredibly positive reviews I couldn’t wait to see it. Unfortunately, for me, it didn’t live up to the hype.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad film. Not at all. The lead character, Olive Penderghast, she of the “Easy” reputation, is outstanding: strong yet caring, sexy without being slutty (whatever the rumour mill might say), and she always gets the last word – even if that last word sometimes has 4 letters, begins with “t”, and is “entirely inappropriate”.

Powering Olive is 21 year-old Emma Stone, who, before Zombieland (but after The New Partridge Family) played Jonah Hill’s home economics buddy in Superbad. What an amazing talent. True, as a ranga, she has a head start, but she has also has great comic timing and a voice that could melt a Franciscan monk’s resolve.

Stanley Tucci is great as the father trying to imagine what that inappropriate word starting with “t” might be, Patricia Clarkson as her mother is hilarious recalling her own slutty high school years, and if more English teachers had been like Thomas Haden-Church we might not all be lamenting contemporary literacy standards.

Fifteen minutes in, with a gorgeous Californian citrus town setting and a cracking soundtrack that nods at many of those high school films listed above, Easy A had me. But a quarter of an hour later it had lost me and never won me back. It was far from a chore – the dialogue is fabulous – but I wasn’t wholly engaged and the reasons are pretty clear. The story falls down at the most basic levels.

What is the concept?

Olive, who’s gorgeous and smart but strangely single, lies to a “friend” that she’s had sex with an older guy. This “terminological inexactitude” – as she puts it, with thanks to Winston Churchill – spreads like wildfire around the school and Brandon, a closeted gay puts a proposition to her. Because his life is so unbearable – we have to take his word for this; we sure don’t see it – he wants her to say that she has slept with him to enhance his cred among the jocks at Ojai High.

Olive agrees but says “I don’t do things by halves” so she suggests that they pretend to do it at a party. Now, as writers, we know there are moments when we really want to include a scene but there’s no legitimate justification so we try to fudge it. “I don’t do things by halves” is one of those moments. Yes, it delivers one of the funniest scenes in the film but do I buy that the character would say this? No, I don’t. In fact, Olive is the sort of character who would tell Brandon to make the world take him on his terms. But, I’ll let them have this one. It’s what happens after this that concerns me more.

Olive’s reputation goes from tramp to skank and suddenly every loser guy in school wants to pay her – in gift vouchers for Bed, Bath and Beyond and OfficeMax – to pretend to sleep with them so they too can enhance their reputations. The big question is, why does she agree?

Here I draw your attention to the official Sony-crafted logline from IMDb: “A clean-cut high school student relies on the school’s rumour mill to advance her social and financial standing.”

Now, if you hadn’t seen the film, you might buy that. But Olive doesn’t need to improve her social standing. She’s the most composed high school student that ever laced up a Skecher. She tells us in voiceover that she is anonymous but, again, we don’t see it dramatised and, given the extraordinary force of her personality and her smoking looks, it requires a significant suspension of disbelief to credit that she’s a social outcast let alone a virgin.

And she sure doesn’t need the money.

So, there’s a bit of a narrative vacuum at the core of the film. Olive doesn’t have a goal, has no motivation, and has nothing at stake.

Her reputation? Well, that sounds like it might be a problem but, again, Olive is so strong, so composed, so in control, that she never seems perturbed. The only time her sangfroid is shattered is when the boyfriend of her supposed friend, Rhiannon, won’t take no for an answer. But she again prevails and the man of her dreams, Woodchuck Todd (the appealing Penn Badgely) is there to pick up the pieces.

The film’s great strength is also its great weakness. Olive, as portrayed by Emma Stone, grabs you from the first instant. The problem is that she is so fantastic in that first instant that she has nowhere to go for the rest of the film. She has no need, possesses no flaw and is therefore incapable of undergoing transformation.

Yes, she wants Woodchuck Todd and doesn’t initially have him, but what is stopping them from getting it on at the beginning of the film? Only the screenwriter’s determination to stretch the film to 90 minutes.

Does her diminished reputation either attract or repulse Woodchuck Todd? No, it doesn’t. That might make him a wonderful guy but it means that the Action Line of the film has no bearing on the Relationship Line and that the film doesn’t really have a climax. The screenwriter makes a joke of the number of times in high school films that people sing songs for no good reason. Well, perhaps. But rarely does it happen at the dramatic peak of the Third Act where the tension is meant to be at its highest.

Sometimes a charismatic protagonist drives the action and goes unchanged (Neil in Dead Poets Society, R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ferris in Ferris) so others can grow (Todd in Dead Poets, Chief and Billy in Cuckoo’s Nest, Cameron in Ferris). However, while Brandon does grow here, he is a peripheral figure and we feel nothing when he finally embraces his sexuality.

In the end, Easy A is a smart, fresh, entertaining film that announces to the world a fabulous new talent. It’s just not a cracking yarn. And it certainly won’t be joining my pantheon of great high school films.

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