"The House Bunny," the latest film from Adam Sandler's Happy Madison Productions, is an unusual film.
Despite a spot-on perfect performance from lead Anna Faris ("Smiley Face," "Lost in Translation") as a former Playboy bunny who finds herself unceremoniously dumped out of Hef's mansion the day after her 27th birthday (that's 59 in "bunny" years, ya know), "The House Bunny" only occasionally lives up to Faris's energetic and inspired performance.
Equal parts Marilyn Monroe and "Revenge of the Nerds," Faris's turn as Shelley is frequently laugh out loud funny, occasionally sincere and yet further proof of the young actress's comic potential.
Written by the "Legally Blonde" writing team of Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah Lutz, "The House Bunny" avoids the all too easy laughs that accompany a film centered on Playboy bunnies, a blonde bombshell and a sorority house full of sexually repressed but, of course, unknowingly beautiful young women just waiting for someone to show them the way. Rather than turning "The House Bunny" into a raunchfest, the co-writers and director Fred Wolf ("Strange Wilderness") take a more subtle route similar in tone to early Sandler flicks that combined silliness, primal instincts and not so subtle moral lessons about inner beauty and the importance of friends and family.
After her unexpected and deceptively inspired booting from the Playboy mansion, Shelley finds herself working as a most unique house mother to Zeta Alpha Zeta, a sorority at the local college that finds itself on the brink of dissolution due to their inability to attract new members.
By the end of "The House Bunny," of course, we will learn how completely cool these sorority women are and, I think it goes without saying, Zeta will find itself restored along with the self-esteem of its members despite the efforts of an opposing sorority's prissy president (Dana Goodman) and their equally obnoxious house mother (Beverly D'Angelo).
I dare say that "The House Bunny" reaches much more of its comic potential before the Zeta's discover make-up, boys and snootiness thanks to Shelley's Playboy-laced advice on how to become more popular. Zeta sisters include unofficial chapter president Natalie (Emma Stone, "Superbad"), the very pregnant Harmony (Katharine McPhee, "American Idol"), diehard feminist Mona (Kat Dennings) and Joanne (Rumer Willis), who continues to wear a back brace long past the point of necessity.
The joy of "The House Bunny" is that while Shelley is certainly a funny character, Faris never allows her to be someone we laugh at. Whereas many actresses would have simply played Shelley as a blonde bimbo stereotype, Farris finds in Shelley a sweetness and authenticity that makes her impossible to not completely adore. While Shelley's seemingly misguided advice does result in the Zeta's being more popular, Shelley herself becomes completely clueless when a nursing home manager (Colin Hanks) doesn't seem to care about her Playboy persona.
In other words, in case you didn't quite get it, Shelley has to become comfortable with who she is on the inside while the Zeta's need to become more comfortable inside their own skin.
While the lessons occasionally flaunt the very stereotypes they are trying to question, it's still a refreshingly balanced approach for the writers to suggest that, perhaps, we can be comfortable with who we are both internally and externally.
"The House Bunny" is very clearly a starring vehicle for Faris. While this works much of the time, it occasionally falls flat when the sorority sisters begin to come out of their shell and, as well, in trying to sell a potential love story between Hanks and Faris that never quite feels believable.
While the Happy Madison team has largely taken a back seat to the far more inspired efforts of the Apatow team lately, "The House Bunny" is an inspired hop in the right direction with its blend of sincerity and silliness.
While several of the supporting roles are arguably underwritten, Faris is a comic force as Shelley and without exception the Zetas bounce right along with her from escapade to escapade.
The same is not true, however, for the film's massively underdeveloped male roles. Hanks, who is rapidly becoming a Hollywood's latest onscreen nice guy, isn't given much to do here and his chemistry with Faris is non-existent. Likewise, Christopher McDonald could play a devious dean in his sleep and, unfortunately, nearly does so here. Only the presence of Hef himself stands out for the men and, in all honesty, that's just Hef being Hef.
The film is further aided by Waddy Wachtel's hyped up musical score and the soundtrack assembled by Michael Dilbeck.
Tech credits for "The House Bunny" are simple but effective, though one wishes that as much creativity had gone into creating the "sexy" sorority sisters as went into their original geeky selves.
Undeniably flawed but consistently funny, "The House Bunny" is worth seeing solely for the comic meanderings of Anna Faris. Throw into the mix an energetic supporting cast, smarter than usual script and lively soundtrack, and you get a pleasant surprise from this late summer release.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic