The spirit of John Hughes lives in “Easy A,” a teen comedy that gives the Facebook generation its very own “Sixteen Candles” and a star bright enough to light them.
Riffing on “The Scarlet Letter” as cleverly as “Clueless” updated Jane Austen, “Easy A” tells the tale of Olive (Emma Stone), a brainy, not-quite-popular California high- schooler whose casual lie triggers a chain of events, comic and otherwise, that no one (including the audience) sees coming.
The falsehood (the virginal Olive claims she isn’t) spreads with the speed of a text message and grows beyond recognition. Condemned by student Bible-thumpers, gawked at by boys and gossiped about by everyone, Olive embraces her sudden visibility. She even agrees to act as a beard for her gay, bullied buddy Brandon (Dan Byrd), a ploy that works so well the hypothetically promiscuous Olive is soon granting her imaginary, status-bestowing favors to every geek and misfit in school.
To say the ruse backfires doesn’t quite do justice to the permutations of Bert V. Royal’s clever and compassionate script. Under director Will Gluck’s seamless direction, every twist is earned: Even Brandon’s politically incorrect retreat into the closet seems like a good idea, until it’s not.
The complications eventually engulf various adults in the school’s orbit -- all the better, since those grown-ups are played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson (as Olive’s open-minded parents), Malcolm McDowell (the nasty-tempered principal), Thomas Hayden Church (the cool-guy teacher) and, best of all, Lisa Kudrow (as a counselor in need of some serious guidance).
Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes and Aly Michalka round out the movie’s brat pack, but Stone, as Olive, is the one to watch. With a film that makes no secret of its debt to ‘80s teen classics “The Breakfast Club,” “Say Anything” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” the smoky-voiced newcomer is a 21st century Molly Ringwald. She deserves an A.
“Easy A,” from Sony Pictures, is playing across the U.S. Rating: ***
‘Never Let Me Go’
Poignancy occasionally pierces the moody gloom of director Mark Romanek’s understated sci-fi parable “Never Let Me Go.” The studied melancholy more often feels as unrelenting as an overcast November afternoon.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel, reverently adapted by Alex Garland, unfolds slowly and without untoward suspense. Early in the film we learn that the somewhat vacant children at an idyllic if immensely dreary British boarding school are clones. They supply organs that have all but eradicated human disease.
Clones, who “complete” their purpose by young adulthood, have feelings too, it turns out. A love triangle develops among three children -- Kathy, Tommy and Ruth -- that will follow them through their abbreviated lives.
The fantastical set-up (the film takes place in the recent past of an alternate-universe England) is little more than framework for the tale’s central allegory: The clock ticks for all, clone or otherwise, so live and love or regret it later. Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, as the adult Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, give lovely, ethereal performances, keeping us interested even as the film fades to gray monotony.
“Never Let Me Go,” from Fox Searchlight Pictures, is playing in select theaters September 15. Rating: **1/2
‘Jack Goes Boating’
Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman makes his feature directing debut with “Jack Goes Boating,” a slight, downbeat romantic comedy with a cast nearly good enough to keep afloat in a lake of whimsy.
Hoffman, in the title role, and co-star John Ortiz reprise their performances from screenwriter Bob Glaudini’s off-Broadway play. They are New York limo drivers, working-class stiffs who probably aren’t destined for better things. Jack, in particular, seems hopeless -- a likable (enough) loser, overweight, pasty, his hair matted in nascent dreadlocks.
Hope comes to Jack via his best pals, a bickering, seemingly doomed married couple (Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega, both excellent) who introduce their third wheel to the lonely, neurotic Connie (Amy Ryan). It’s a match made in sad-sack heaven. When Connie mentions that no one has ever cooked her a meal or taken her rowing on the Central Park lake, Jack does what anyone in a quirky indie romance would do: Studies cooking under a top chef and learns to swim.
The logic behind Jack’s binge of self-improvement (really, wouldn’t life jackets and a nice pasta salad do the trick?) goes unexamined, perhaps for fear of disrupting the film’s deliberate tone of fanciful hipness. Ortiz, Ryan and, especially, Rubin-Vega help anchor things with some New York grit, even when a blubbering Hoffman sends Jack overboard.
“Jack Goes Boating,” from Overture Films, is playing in select cities. Rating: **
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)