The House Bunny (Columbia Pictures), a wobbly little comedy with a faux-feminist pretext for existence—a Playboy bunny ejected from Hugh Hefner’s mansion finds meaning in her new life as a sorority house mother—is worth seeing for one petite, blond, enormously gifted reason: Anna Faris. Here’s an actress who’s been at the edge of stardom for years: She delivered a savage sendup of a Cameron Diaz-like starlet in Lost in Translation and submitted herself to countless lowbrow indignities as the indestructible heroine of the Scary Movie slasher-spoof franchise. On Entourage, she played herself in a memorable three-episode story arc (memorable because she cracked actual jokes on a show where pretty girls generally just strip and smile). And, in the barely seen comedy Smiley Face, Faris did a female take on the stoner odyssey that I’m probably alone in remembering as one of the funniest performances of 2007. Through all of this, Faris has remained an epiphenomenon, a welcome face in supporting roles rather than a headlining star in her own right. But unless the Hollywood establishment is as dumb as the centerfold Faris plays in The House Bunny, this movie will get someone to write her the role she deserves.
Until then, we’ll have to content ourselves with Faris as Shelley Darlingson, an orphan who’s spent her adult life in the Playboy mansion as one of Hef’s favorites. The morning after her 27th birthday, Shelley is kicked out of the mansion for being too old. Wandering the streets in heels and pastel hot pants, she eventually winds up as a live-in housemother to the girls of the Zeta Alpha Zeta sorority, an outpost for boyfriendless misfits. (They don’t wear makeup! They have piercings! Some of them are smart!) In the grand frat-movie tradition, the Zeta girls are in danger of losing their charter and thus their house if they don’t start recruiting pledges. So Shelley coaches the Zetas in the fine arts of flirting, primping, and throwing rad parties, while they help her win the heart of a nerdy campus do-gooder (Colin Hanks) by teaching her to dial back the bunny act and be herself.
I don’t want to even think about what all this means as a feminist allegory. Like Grease and The Breakfast Club, The House Bunny all but announces that lip gloss and tarty outfits pave the way to female self-actualization. And unlike those movies, it doesn’t make the makeover process look particularly fun (though I did love a mascara-tutorial scene in which Shelley lectures the girls, “Remember, the eyes are the nipples of the face”). The Zetas—played by an odd lineup of newcomers that includes American Idol contestant Katharine McPhee and Rumer Willis, Bruce and Demi’s daughter—go from stereotyped losers to stereotyped hotties with logic-defying speed (and making McPhee’s character visibly pregnant without providing any back story is a tad disconcerting). But there’s real pathos to a scene in which Shelley trots out all her porn-based seduction tricks on a date, only to discover that she’s grossed out her man and made a fool of herself. The House Bunny can go only so far in satirizing the Playboy empire though, since it’s clearly been approved by Hefner (who plays himself in scenes that take place inside the real mansion). But its founding premise—that the laws of soft porn translate poorly to the real world—is as close to a female empowerment message as you can expect in a movie like this.
The movie also has some embarrassing laugh-free stretches, but Faris holds everything together with bubbly intelligence, unexpected line readings, and a few deft pratfalls. The film’s most random joke is also its funniest: Shelley has a habit of breaking into a hoarse Exorcist-like voice as a mnemonic device for remembering people’s names. Even the fifth time it happens, this gets a big laugh from the audience, perhaps because it hints at a well of anarchic, defiantly ungirly humor that Faris’ career thus far has barely begun to tap. The House Bunny wants us to believe that its message is to look past appearances and appreciate inner beauty. Let’s hope Anna Faris’ next project looks past her outer beauty and unleashes her inner weirdo.