Easy A -- Film Review

"Easy A" is a high school comedy that turns a stale genre upside down with sly wit and sharp satire.

TORONTO -- If, as the old comic apocryphally said on his deathbed, dying is easy but comedy hard, then how is it every so often a film comes along that makes comedy look so easy? Such is the case with "Easy A," a high school romp that turns a stale genre upside down with sly wit and sharp satire.

Certainly much of the credit goes to Bert V. Royal, a playwright and sometime TV writer who has crafted a smart screenplay that introduces a classical theme into contemporary youth culture. And director Will Gluck keeps the screen busy and vibrant without the current fad of attention-deficit, run-and-gun editing.

Most of all, a young actress was needed to carry the movie. Emma Stone, who has been waiting in the wings for such a starring opportunity, seizes the moment with such self-assurance and old-fashioned brio that she elevates the game of every actor who comes within her orbit. Consequently, the film is loaded with sparkling supporting performances that make the comedy oh-so-much richer.

"Easy A" has the potential to be that rara avis that connects with audiences below and above the 25-year age demarcation. But to reach that wider demographic, Screen Gems will need to market this as a "Juno"-like offering centering on a teenage girl with whip-smart dialogue and observant humor.

The story takes place in Southern California's Ojai Valley, the film's first stroke of brilliance as this lovely oasis of natural beauty with a spirited arts colony has scarcely appeared in movies since it was used to represent Shangri-La in Frank Capra's 1939 "The Lost Horizon." The conflicting interplay of liberal sensibilities and small-town small-mindedness underscores the themes in Royal's playful script.

You might not quite buy the notion that such a pretty and intelligent student as Stone's Olive Penderghast ever flew under everyone's radar at Ojai High School. But nevermind -- once a vicious rumor races through the campus, Olive certainly takes center stage. Trouble is, she is the source of the rumor.

To cover up for a dull weekend of doing absolutely nothing, Olive tells best gal pal Rhiannon (Aly Michalka) a lurid tale about having a hot romance with a college dude; she more than hints that she lost her virginity. Gossip-hungry Rhiannon is as pleased as she is shocked, but the tale is overheard by Marianne (Amanda Bynes), leader of the school's Jesus-freak celibates, who is merely shocked.

The scandalized teen can't wait to tweet, so the social network of Ojai High is soon abuzz over Olive's promiscuity. Discovering to her surprise that her new notoriety is more appealing than alarming, Olive decides not to deny the rumor, which leads to surprising consequences.

Another school pal, Brandon (Dan Byrd), bullied because he is gay, persuades Olive to use her bad-girl reputation to help him fake his heterosexuality. Soon other losers in the popularity games of youth come to her with propositions.

It just so happens that while this is going on, Olive's English class, taught by the charismatic Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church), is studying Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter." Realizing her newfound identity with its heroine, Hester Prynne -- a public pariah because of an act of adultery -- Olive starts to wear homemade trashy clothes festooned with a bright letter "A."

Her liberal-minded and most trusting parents (Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson), latter-day hippies one can only wish to have for parents, notice this change in their daughter and do question her about her choice of attire. But they never question her judgment or behavior.

So the film makes all sorts of comic attacks on hypocrisy, social networking, peer pressure, false values and double standards. Meanwhile, parents will no doubt thrill to any teen movie that treats the loss of virginity in a negative light.

If there's any drawback it's that the comedy peaks too early in Olive and Brandon's hilarious make-out behind closed doors at a raucous party. The film never finds anything nearly that funny in the subsequent "sales" of fraudulent sexual favors by Olive to other males eager to establish their reputations as studs. And the film struggles to find anything humorous in the sad demise of Mr. Griffith's marriage to a guidance counselor (Lisa Kudrow), which indirectly involves Olive.

The entire movie is framed as a live webcast by Olive to the entire community to confess her false career as a school slut. This allows Stone's character to offer wisecracks and wisdom while commenting on this career and everyone else's character-defining response to utter nonsense. The entire screenplay is shot through with zippy one-liners and puns that might possibly make the film funnier on second viewing.

The acting is terrific throughout, with gems by Tucci, Clarkson, Byrd and Church as well as Malcolm McDowell as the choleric school principal and Penn Badgley as Olive's true love, who, like her parents, pays no attention to rumors.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Screen Gems)
Production: An Olive Bridge Entertainment production
Cast: Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Dan Byrd, Thomas Haden Church, Patricia Clarkson, Cam Gigandet, Lisa Kudrow, Malcolm McDowell, Aly Michalka, Stanley Tucci
Director: Will Gluck
Screenwriter: Bert V. Royal
Producers: Zanne Devine, Will Gluck
Director of photography: Michael Grady
Production designer: Marcia Hinds
Costume designer: Mynka Daper
Editor: Susan Littenberg
Rated PG-13, 93 minutes