Bursting onto the scene like an uninhibited, lovable breath of fresh air in 2000's raunchy horror spoof "Scary Movie
," Anna Faris has since made a career out of playing offbeat, frequently daffy character roles. Like a modern-day Lucille Ball, she is a pure and utter natural, brilliant at getting a laugh and just as adept at finding the heart and pathos in the unexpected. Perhaps more than ever, Faris is an incandescent standout in "The House Bunny," a formulaic bubblegum comedy that takes the old and finds ways to make it seem new again. What is truly ironic is that the film was produced by Adam Sandler's Happy Madison Productions, and it is far smarter (and funnier) than anything Sandler himself has headlined in nearly a decade.
Shelley Darlingson (Anna Faris) lives the good life in the Playboy mansion as one of Hugh Hefner's girls next door. Coming from nothingshe was an orphan as a childand now happier than she's ever been, Shelley's world comes tumbling down when she turns twenty-seven ("That's, like, fifty-nine in Bunny years") and is promptly given the boot. Now homeless and without any prospects, Shelley's fate takes an upswing when she stumbles upon the Zeta college sorority, populated by a group of awkward misfits who are about to lose their housing unless they can wrangle up thirty new pledges. Acting as their new house mother, she becomes determined to make them over, train them in the arts of fashion and guys, and ultimately save their sorority. What Shelley is about to discover, however, is that she isn't quite as wise as she thought, and has a lot to learn herself about living in the real world.
"The House Bunny" was directed by Fred Wolf (a sizable step up from 2008's "Strange Wilderness
") and written by "Legally Blonde
" scribes Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith. The film borrows bits and pieces of the blueprint of that winning 2001 Reese Witherspoon hit, particularly the premise of a pretty, sweet-souled blonde out to prove that she has more going on upstairs than people give her credit for, and is just as irresistibly entertaining. The idea of turning ducks into swans is not a new cinematic notion, and for a time the viewer starts to worry that the picture will offer up a wrongheaded message about beauty being more important than brains. Writers Lutz and Smith, way ahead of us, ease our worries when it is revealed that Shelley, too, is misguided about what it takes to get ahead and attract the opposite sex. Her transformation, from a nice but looks-obsessed young woman into a more informed and wise person who comes to realize that physical beauty is only as bright as one's inner self, packs a surprisingly effective and organic punch.
With a worthy message at its core, "The Happy Bunny" is free to just be a load of unadulterated fun. The laughs come quickly and often, playing upon Shelley's endearing naiveté (she confuses a nursing home for a place that houses nurses), the sorority sisters' initial social ineptitude (the tall, deep-voiced Carrie Mae comes onto a guy at a club by asking him where the crapper is), and their humor-filled interactions with the outside world. Shelley's quirky tendency to repeat peoples' names in a throaty, demonic voice when she first meets them could have just been a one-shot gag, but instead stays truthful to her character and carries on throughout the film. Her romance with the patient, down-to-earth Oliver (Colin Hanks) is unassumingly sweet, the catalyst for her understanding that some guys actually prefer naturalism and personality in relationships rather than plastic, intentionally dumbed-down bimbos. When, on their first date, Shelley's attempts at sexiness take a turn for the worseshe tries to recreate the famous Marilyn Monroe image of standing on a manhole and allowing the heat to blow up her dressthe results are hilarious. On their second date, her overreaching aims at acting intellectual (complete with secret notecards as a guide) are also botched in rousingly amusing ways.
The lovely Anna Faris (2005's "Just Friends
") deserves a heap of accolades for her faultless performance as Shelley Darlingson. Unlike Elle Woods from "Legally Blonde
," Shelley will not be going to Harvard anytime soon, but that's okay; she finds through the course of the film that being the most beautiful or the most intelligent isn't nearly as crucial as simply embracing her innate being. Faris takes this role and runs with it, her energy unflagging and her talent at physical comedy unblemished. Simply put, she's as good as it gets when it comes to modern-day comedic actresses.
As the sunny Natalie, leader of the Zeta sorority, Emma Stone (2008's "The Rocker
") is such a potent comic force herself that she threatens to steal many of her scenes. The same goes for Dana Goodman (2008's "You Don't Mess with the Zohan
"), bringing the house down with her every line reading as Carrie Mae. The rest of the gals who make up the sorority do their parts well, including Rumer Willis (2005's "Hostage
"), whose Joanne hides behind a body brace that should have been taken off four years ago; Kiely Williams (2008's "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2
"), whose silent, painfully shy Lilly shocks everyone when she finally speaks (and with a British accent, to boot), and "American Idol" runner-up Katharine McPhee, serviceable in her acting debut as the pregnant Harmony. Colin Hanks (2008's "Untraceable
") hasn't much to do as Shelley's love interest, Oliver, but he makes the most of an underwritten part through his charm alone.
"The House Bunny" falls into the trap of being set at a college where students are rarely seen going to classesthe name of the university is never even mentionedbut this is a minor quibble in the face of a film as genuinely engaging as this one is. The pacing is peppy, the writing sparkles, the soundtrack is complimentary, and the morals are thoughtful without being preachy. "The House Bunny" is a lightweight romp, to be sure, but it's savvy in a way most comedies these days aren't and has a none-too-secret weapon in the form of Anna Faris. Alongside the joyously satirical "Hamlet 2," this is the brightest comedy so far this year.