The story of a smart, funny girl who becomes a self-styled Hester Prynne, "Easy A" is neither as smart nor as funny as it wants to be. With the verbal-cleverness dial set at 11, the teen comedy wears its glib cultural references — pop and 19th-century literary — in boldface embroidery. Much of what passes for fresh in this "Scarlet Letter" update doesn't bear closer inspection, yet the movie is not without its pleasures, chief among them the potentially star-making lead performance by Emma Stone.
High school presents plenty of inequities, but the idea that Stone's Olive Penderghast is "invisible" and "anonymous," as she claims in voiceover narration, is hard to buy. The attractive auburn-haired student is ultra-poised and self-confident — intimidating, perhaps, but unnoticed? Using broad strokes rather than satirical detail, the film paints a teen subculture that delivers some laughs but not the giddy sting of truth à la "Clueless."
If its approach to source material is on the level of CliffsNotes, "Easy A" proves inventive in its plotting: A good girl gains a reputation as the school's No. 1 skank after her white lie about a boring weekend turns into school-wide buzz. Director Will Gluck ( "Fired Up!") uses Ojai locations to good effect, setting the tony SoCal small-town scene in which word travels at the speed of text messages. The camera swoops through the high-school rumor mill, cellphone to cellphone, at the open-air campus.
Embracing the role she hasn't earned, Olive dons Ray-Bans and scarlet-"A"-decorated bustiers and becomes a kind of saint to adolescent boys with no social standing. Agreeing to pretend that she's slept with them, or at least made out with them, she soon amasses a fine collection of gift cards for her "services."
The scheme begins in response to the entreaties of closeted gay classmate Brandon ( Dan Byrd), and the film relaxes a bit from its shrill first half-hour. Bert V. Royal's script sets the snark factor at such a fever pitch that the opening stretches have an assaultive energy. As the movie loosens up, the humor hits home more frequently.
Of considerable help are the warm performances of Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci, as Olive's supportive, somewhat silly parents, who speak with the same self-conscious hyper-facetiousness of nearly every character. This is not a film in which all grownups are oblivious or hypocritical. Thomas Hayden Church brings a weary soulfulness to the role of Olive's favorite teacher, and Lisa Kudrow is scalding and pathetic as the misguided guidance counselor.
The movie is, on the one hand, up-to-the minute, complete with webcam narration, and, on the other, beamed in from the last century: Olive's nemesis is a crusading Christian ( Amanda Bynes) too cartoonish to hit any contemporary nerves. Several characters are stuck in one dimension. The behavior of Olive's best friend (Aly Michalka), a self-described "super slut" virgin, makes little sense, and her younger, adopted brother is on hand mainly to serve as the linchpin of a gag.
For the target audience, the nonstop wisecracks of "Easy A" likely will carry an electric charge. But it's Stone's girlish strength and comic gifts that anchor the film, which, with its overt nods to John Hughes and slightly goofy heartthrob ( Penn Badgley), is soft beneath its hard edges.