Jeff Wells, high on Anne Hathaway’s work in “Love and Other Drugs,” recently wrote a piece bemoaning the lack of awards consideration usually granted to romantic comedy performances: “[There is a] belief,” he complains, “that to qualify for an acting award you have to solemnly suffer and pour your heart out in a somewhat doleful and non-pizazzy way.”
Of course, this is a casual generalization. In the past decade, several women have broken through in the Best Actress for broad comedy (romantic and otherwise) vehicles, including Ellen Page, Diane Keaton, Judi Dench and Meryl Streep — twice. (Or more, depending on your take on “Doubt.”) Should “Love and Other Drugs,” with its big-name pedigree and dramatic overtones, take off with the smart adult audiences it’s being pitched to, a nomination for Hathaway is perfectly feasible.
Unadulterated comic fluff, however, is another matter. While veterans like Streep and Keaton are given passes for lightweight fare, you have to go back to Renée Zellweger (“Bridget Jones Diary,” 2001) to find an example of a younger actress earning a nod for a purely comic film without Best Picture clout. In 2007, Amy Adams rode a wave of early buzz for “Enchanted,” but fell victim to the Academy’s faulty sense of humor. Still, she got further than, say, Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde” or Jennifer Garner in “13 Going on 30″ – both performances worthy of consideration that never got off the starting blocks due to their flighty commercial vehicles.
On that basis — and others, including her youth and (despite bright appearances in “Superbad” and “Zombieland”) her comparatively unfamiliar name — the odds are against up-and-comer Emma Stone getting into an already competitive Best Actress race for the bubbly teen comedy “Easy A.” And that’s a shame, because Stone’s frisky, funny and stealthily wise performance as a star student playing playground games with her reputation is not only as impressive an arrival as Jennifer Lawrence’s nomination-bound turn in “Winter’s Bone,” but one of the year’s most complex and questioning female leads, period. Indeed, as I mentally compile my current personal ballot for 2010 this, I myself am surprised to find this girl jostling with Juliette Binoche for pole position. If you know me, you’ll know that’s some deep praise.
Stone’s achievement is all the more remarkable for the comparative lack of assistance she is given by her vehicle. I took time out from more taxing filmgoing duties at the London Film Festival to see “Easy A,” mainly as preparation for an upcoming interview with another of the film’s stars, and was unexpectedly charmed by its wonky moral logic and jagged sense of high school politics. But there were as many moments where I wanted to take a whetstone to its thoughtful script, to sharpen some of its one-liners and refine some of its more obliviously iffy ethical calls.
In scene after scene, however, Stone is that (ahem) whetstone, projecting an innate, consistent intelligence that never descends into smartass precocity, yet remaining palpably aware of when her character is wrong. Which is often: her Olive is an unusual high school heroine in that she doesn’t walk the good girl-bad girl line to impress anyone but herself. As the arch performance-within-a-performance slips out of Olive’s control, however, Stone’s own performance takes on conflicting registers of panic, resignation and unadmitted delight: the quick transitions between which remind us that she’s very much a teenager after all.
All that, plus she spits out wisecracks with fizzy aplomb, and socks a knockout song-and-dance number. There may be any number of fine performances in the running for the Best Actress statuette this year — from Natalie Portman to Lesley Manville to Michelle Williams — but I can’t think of any that are doing more than Stone’s, while making it look quite so simple. That, of course, is why actors so rarely get awards credit for soufflé pieces like “Easy A”: when the dish goes down that easily, one can forget how much expertise goes into making it rise.
[Photo: Screen Gems]