No one in the movies manages a look of stupefaction and bliss the way Anna Faris does. I've seen Johnny Depp and Cameron Diaz attempt it, but Faris seems possessed by the shock of anticipation. Shelley, the blond Playboy Mansion dolt Faris plays in "The House Bunny," has a birthday blowout where an obscenely giant cake is wheeled her way. She looks up at it, and her awe practically glows: I'm gonna have to eat the whole thing!
But it's hard to build an entire comedy out of that face, and the men and women who've cobbled together "The House Bunny" give up trying. Faris plays her usual lunatic-idiot. This time her hard-working caricature inches closer to the proportions of an actual human being. Shelley finds herself evicted from the Mansion. The goodbye letter cites her old age. (She just turned 27, which someone explains is "59 in Bunny years.") She drifts for a few scenes until she ends up at a sorority whose unpopularity has put it on the college's endangered list.
A gander around the premises explains everything. The sorority's sad creatures are like refugees from the ultimate Dickens novel: a miserable, socially and cosmetically backward group. One girl (Rumer Willis) wears a body brace. Another (Kiely Williams) has never spoken. There's not much proof they've ever seen daylight, and excusing the one pregnant girl (Katharine McPhee), it's hard to believe they've made contact with the opposite sex - or any sex, for that matter. It's Bleakest House.
Shelley hops to the rescue. The girls try to attack her with their feminism, but nothing can stop the makeovers, ritual-theme bashes (virgin sacrifice!), and seduction tips. It's that type of movie - the nerds and freaks are turned into centerfolds. The joke, though, is not on the women. It's on sexiness itself - what it is and where it comes from and who responds to it.
The best development in Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith's script, though, comes after a nice guy (Colin Hanks) asks Shelley out, and her tips don't work on nice, smart guys. They're for pigs. Standing over a steaming manhole twirls up her dress, but it also scalds her legs and who knows what else. So the girls have to educate her. And the sight of Shelley sliding across a library floor scouring for knowledge in great big books is exciting, a little bit like how Judy Holliday came to her senses in "Born Yesterday." It's nice to see a movie where a woman shows her sisters how to loosen up and how those women, once they're relaxed, show her how to have a little dignity.
Faris plays a willing student. She and the ladies of the house - the wonderful Kat Dennings and the even better Emma Stone play the two with the most scenes - are individually funny. But the film is also interesting for its starlet funhouse quality. Faris often seems as though she's going for Britney Spears. Dennings is like a gothy Hilary Duff. And Stone comes across as the goofy Lindsay Lohan you could take home to mother. Add to this one Cheetah Girl (Williams), Tom Hanks's son, and the daughter of Bruce and Demi (Willis), and the movie achieves a kind of pop surrealism.
It doesn't achieve much else. It doesn't turn any corners, it's lazy, and it's content to keep playing dumb long after it's really funny - "Illegally Blonde." The real reason Shelley has been tossed from the house (it's not actually her age) goes nowhere. It would have been nice to see the movie push past cute gags and into more adult ones. Impossibly, Shelley wakes up from her birthday party alone with piles of pillows in her bed. Maybe wishing for something more comically lascivious than cleavage is silly. But the movie is a commercial for Hugh Hefner that makes his magazine seem like Seventeen.