It’s a little stroke of genius: Make a female-empowerment movie and cast it with Playboy Bunnies. Elevated via a strong script by “Legally Blonde” scribes Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah Lutz, “The House Bunny” is a blissfully broad comedy that should catapult Anna Faris into a singular kind of stardom — she’s funny, she’s sexy, and her movie distinguishes itself grandly from a mostly gore-and-groin-fixated summer comedy season. Titles are sometimes dumped in mid- to late August, but good buzz could help this Fred Wolf-directed laffer break out beyond its young-femme target audience.
Best known for her work in the “Scary Movie” franchise and her stoner turn in last year’s “Smiley Face,” Faris plays Shelley Darlingson, a Bunny who resides in paradise — aka the Playboy Mansion, from which she is summarily dismissed one day for unknown reasons. Suddenly homeless, and devoid of survival skills outside what “God and Dr. Borkman gave me,” Shelley stumbles upon the Zeta Alpha Zeta sorority house, a place that seems like it could have once been inhabited by a certain Miss Havisham.
The house’s inhabitants are the worst collection of gothic geekettes assembled since Tod Browning was making movies. But inside each Zeta girl is a babe (or quasi-babe) waiting to happen. And since the house is about to be sold out from under its members — thanks in part to the scheming witches of Phi Iota Mu — Shelley is appointed house mother and has to help the girls quickly find their inner vamps, attract new members and keep the sorority from going the way of the whalebone corset.
That the script was written for Faris (who shares exec producer credits with the pic’s scribes) is evident: Shelley is a guileless tomato-with-a-heart-of-gold, and Faris dances delicately between her pure sweetness and hilarious ineptitude, never making the character an object of ridicule but never pretending she’s a genius, either. The easy comparison is to Marilyn Monroe — Faris, a bombshell, effects the same soft voice and endearing cluelessness. But Shelley has a lot more angles than most of Monroe’s characters, and the place Faris has carved out for herself is inseparable from her own particular talents and personality.
Just as Faris walks a tightrope, so does the story: Shelley is, after all, encouraging the sorority girls — the caustic arch-feminist Mona (Kat Dennings); the sweet, socially inept Natalie (Emma Stone); the very pregnant (it’s never explained) Harmony (Katharine McPhee); the back-brace-wearing Joanne (Rumer Willis) — to make room in their lives for makeup, men and parties.
What saves the intellectual day is Shelley’s relationship with good guy Oliver (Colin Hanks): For all the helpful advice she gives her girls, Shelley doesn’t know how to develop a normal relationship with a normal man. The Faris-Hanks scenes provide Faris with some of her better moments and keeps “The House Bunny” from becoming bimbo propaganda.
“My head’s pounding like a nail,” says a stressed-out Shelley at one point, and the only thing that might have auds feeling likewise is the rousing, unrelenting soundtrack put together by Michael Dilbeck. (Waddy Wachtel composed the original music). It’s unnecessary embellishment: The female cast is a joyous little ensemble, with the gift of good lines and the ability to deliver them with energy.
Production values are first-rate.