Monday, February 21, 2011

All talk

Easy A (2010) sets out to be a modern gloss on The Scarlet Letter in which a woman who is actually a victim becomes an outcast for her presumed audacity; whereas the film actually corresponds more closely to another fictional work about Puritan New England, The Crucible, about the importance of honoring the truth, and the value of preserving one's good name.

It is also an hommage to the 80s teen comedies it explicitly references, especially in that the very prospect of a girl acknowledging having had sex causes a sensation throughout the school. I cannot imagine the high school in the United States in 2011 where this would be a sensation, nevertheless it is an essential premise of this story, without which nothing would follow. In fact, the entire film takes place in a strange make-believe world, which is probably what makes some unpalatable ideas tolerable.

Happily, this make-believe world is populated with superbly funny supporting character actors whose presence is clearly aimed at moviegoers older than the apparent intended audience. It is difficult to conceive that the lovable, affable hippies played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson could have raised such a well-balanced character as Olive, but it is an attractive fantasy. (One wonders about the non-intuitive pairing of Tucci and Clarkson, who exhibit flawless teamwork until one learns that they are longtime close friends.) Thomas Haden Church, who used to excel at playing obnoxious jerks is here admirable, not least for the fact that his character behaves as if he was a jerk, not acknowledging how caring and funny he is. And Lisa Kudrow deserves a medal for consistently not giving a damn about her "image" and seeking out the interesting roles.

Finally, there is Dan Byrd, who has emerged from the mill of TV sitcoms and here lends an unexpected depth of emotion to what begins as a farcical solution to a farcical problem. As is typical for these films, the high-schoolers look old enough to be delivering their doctoral dissertations--one of them is actually identified as being 22, but he is hardly the oldest-looking "student" around. Some day someone will make a high school movie with 16-year-olds and the universe will probably implode.

But Easy A's greatest accomplishment is to have made a teen sex comedy without any sex, which brings me back to my initial point -- the story is about names, the names you're given and the name you make for yourself. At the outset, our heroine is Olive because she believes she is drab. Her girl friend is Rhiannon, a name nobody heard of until some celebrity turned up with that made-up concoction. Her gay friend is Brandon, who has both been "branded", that is, marked as gay (and therefore outcast), but also might turn out to be Brando, both a great actor and a celebrity (and leaves Ojai to find out). Her object of desire is not like other high school boys; although handsome, he is (T)odd. So I only wish that Olive, instead of adopting Hester Prynne's "A" which she has not in fact earned, had at the end, when she decides to start telling the truth about who and what she is had only repeated the words of John Proctor, who upon being asked why he will not sign his name to a false confession, thought it could save his life, tells his judge:
Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!
[My daughter praised the film for being an accurate reflection of what it is like to be an under-estimated over-achiever, the kind of girl whose accomplishments and good sense are so taken for granted that she can inadvertently be given the latitude to make the kind of serious mistakes that more average kids may never have. And such a person's abilities are taken for granted, his or her judgment may be over-estimated -- thus, they can find themselves over their heads without a real confidant or mentor to be relied on to dig themselves out.]

I was reminded of another sexless sex comedy based on a lie. Marriage Italian Style (1965) is a terrible title (meant to remind filmgoers of a prior success, Divorce Italian Style) for an adaptation of a classic of the Italian stage, Filumena Marturano. The story begins with a lie: Domenico's long-time mistress, Filumena is dying, and he needs to marry her before she expires and goes to hell. The marriage proceeds, the deception revealed and Domenico is furious, and seeks an annulment on the basis of deception.

This is the reverse of Easy A -- Filumena is being denied the name "Signora Soriano" although she is clearly entitled to it. She runs his household, keeps the books for his businesses, and, unbeknownst to him raised the son she had by him, along with two other sons by other men. Ostensibly, Domenico will not marry her because he wants to marry his younger girlfriend, but what that really means is that Filumena HAS already become The Wife -- the undesirable but indispensable life partner whose loyalty a man hopes to purchase at the lowest price possible -- even nothing, not even affection. (One wonders if the Latin man has a problem with this because he has been conditioned to love the woman who cannot be desired The Mother. Once The Wife becomes a Mother, either to one's children or to oneself, she is, by definition, undesirable.)

It is interesting to see Sophia Loren at this relatively early stage in her career (about 10 years as a star with 45 to follow--so far) playing the cast-off, the discarded woman; although of course, she is quite able to play the desirable young trollop in the flashback scenes. And Mastroianni was always the master of spiritual weariness. What is particularly striking is Domenico's odd formality with the three young men, any of whom might be his son. What frightens him and prevents him from showing genuine warmth is not the fear that they will make demands of him, but that he will feel attachment and need for his son -- or worse, for all of Filumena's sons. The fact that none of them want his money confirms it. Domenico cannot relate to a family member who is not a supplicant; and one who may give him something he can't admit needing: love and respect.

The film is not afraid to be abrasive, to make both Domenico and Filumena seem cruel at times, and one wonders what sharper, harsher directions Easy A could have gone in; a different set of parents, a girl with less sense of self. A girl who could let herself be victimized until the day...

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