The Bogus Letter

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Here’s a new twist on an old formula: boy pays girl to pretend she likes him, so other kids at school will think he’s cool. It worked in “Can’t Buy Me Love” (1987), when geeky Roland Miller (played by dreamy Patrick Dempsey) hired the lovely and popular Cindi Mancini (Amanda Peterson) to pretend she was his girlfriend. Cindi went along with it because she desperately needed $200, but she established strict rules governing their relationship, and it remained chaste until after the pseudo-romance blossomed inevitably into genuine love. That was a sweet movie about the superficiality of teenagers and the transformative power of a good haircut.

“Easy A,” however, avoids the relationship and cuts to the chase. In this film we are expected to believe that geeky teenaged boys would pay a girl simply to let them say “I had sex with her” (as though boys ever had to ask permission to start rumors like that). Moreover, we are expected to believe that a pretty, witty, and seemingly intelligent girl would be willing to destroy her reputation just to help these poor slobs out. Even more, we are expected to believe that having a one-time-only roll in the hay with the high school tramp (read on) would make these boys seem anything other than pathetic. I just don’t buy it.

As if that didn’t require enough suspension of disbelief, we then have to buy the idea that, after the girl has destroyed said reputation, the guy of her real dreams would still want her, slutty reputation and all, no questions asked. I may be old, but I don’t think human nature has changed that much since my dating days.

The film is presented episodically as Olive (Emma Stone) tells the story of her descent into infamy by means of her webcam journal. Supposedly Olive has been “invisible” and ignored by her peers, and this has caused her to give up on maintaining her good reputation. But she is friends with one of the coolest girls at school and is invited to her parties. She seems to be friends with the jocks and the cheerleaders as well. So I don’t get this angle either: why should she agree to say she has slept with all the losers in the class?

It begins innocently enough, with Olive making up a date with an imaginary boyfriend to avoid going camping with the family of her best friend, Rhiannon (Alyson Mychalka). When Rhiannon asks for prurient details about the date, Olive goes overboard in describing a night of passion, unaware that Marianne (Amanda Bynes), the class prude, can overhear them. Marianne spreads the false story, and everyone at school starts talking about Olive and her mysterious college boyfriend. Instead of denying it or ignoring it, Olive embraces her new reputation by pretending to sleep with every boy who proffers a gift card, beginning with her gay friend Brandon (Dan Byrd) who wants to stay in the closet. Puh-leez!!

Coincidentally, Olive is studying Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” at school, so to demonstrate her contempt for the way others are treating her (even though it’s her own fault for lying to them), she buys an assortment of bustiers and corsets, adorns them all with deep red A’s, and begins living the martyred life of Hester Prynne. (Or so we are led to believe.) However, as anyone who has read “The Scarlet Letter” knows, Hawthorne’s Hester is not a slut. She does not happily service every unhappy man in town — or pretend to. She falls in love — true love — with a man whom she cannot marry, and she becomes pregnant. Shunned by the community when her pregnancy begins to show, and forced to wear a letter A on her clothing as a brand, Hester lives a life of solitude and service to the community that has shunned her. She does it on her own terms, with her head held high. Through her actions, as time goes on, the “A” seems to transform itself from “Adulterer” to “Angel” in the eyes of many of the women in town, although they never lift the shunning. For Hester, the scarlet letter is not an “easy A.” It comes at a high cost. In fact, she names her baby “Pearl” to acknowledge the “great price” she has paid.

Like Hester, who is persecuted by her community’s puritanical leaders, Olive is persecuted by an overzealous Christian Club at school, led by Marianne. Members of the club are presented with typical Hollywood venom. They are self-righteous, cruel, vapid, and judgmental — and at least one is a sexual hypocrite (of course). By contrast, Olive’s parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) are presented as hip, witty, and cool. Olive banters with them, exchanging clever word plays and literary references. But they are too hip — or too hippie — to provide any actual parenting, rules, or guidelines. “You know we accept your choices,” is all her mother says about the bizarre new wardrobe, providing a contrast to the judgmental Christian Club, but not much help.

School administrators are no better — the principal gives her detention for using the British curse word for a female body part, but says nothing to her about wearing lingerie as a shirt. Olive’s guidance counselor (Lisa Kudrow) is useless, giving Olive a handful of condoms when what Olive really wants is help figuring out how to undo the web of lies that entangles her.

Usually I enjoy teen films that borrow their plots from classic literature. I’m thinking of such films as “Clueless” (1995), based on Jane Austen’s “Emma,” and “10 Things I Hate about You” (1997), based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.” These timeless stories translate well to modern settings, giving the films greater resonance and depth. But this one doesn’t work. It’s hard to root for a teenager who glorifies casual sex, teen drinking, and pal parenting, or a film that embraces stereotypes of any kind, whether Christian or gay. (Or business. When a Quiznos mascot shows up inexplicably at a Christian protest, Olive complains derisively, “The only thing that trumps religion is capitalism.”) Oh, Hollywood. You are so predictable.

On the surface, the movie is a lot of fun. Emma Stone is a fine actress (if a bit old for this part). She is cute, sassy, smart, and fun, reminiscent of Lindsay Lohan in “Mean Girls” (before she was ruined by some of the same casual values portrayed in this film). Critics have almost universally praised the film for its high quality of acting, its humorous banter full of literary allusions, and its funny situations as the virginal Olive pretends to have sex. In the most memorable scene, Olive and Brandon stagger into a house party, feigning drunkenness, and ask for a bedroom where they can “finish what we started” in the car (wink, wink). Partygoers gather around the closed door to listen as the two jump on the bed, pound on the wall, moan and shout while they pretend to have sex. (He’s gay, remember, and she’s a virgin, so neither of them has any experience in “lemon-squeezing,” as Brandon so delicately puts it.) A movie hasn’t been this much fun since Harry met Sally.

So why do other reviewers find this film funnier than I do? I think they are blinded by the age of the actors. Emma Stone and Dan Byrd (Olive and Brandon) are both in their mid-20s. They’re adults. It’s easy to forget that they are portraying children. But if 16-year-old Dakota Fanning were playing 16-year-old Olive, I think audiences would have a completely different reaction to the film.

My biggest beef with “Easy A” is that it simply looks too easy. Olive ruins her reputation with a long list of pretend liaisons, and then restores it overnight, just by telling the boy of her dreams that it was all made up. But as any real girl will tell you, it ain’t that easy when you’re easy. If we learn anything from “The Scarlet Letter,” it is that reputations are easily tarnished, but painfully restored. There is no such thing as an easy A.

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