In The House Bunny, Anna Faris looks significantly more glammed up than when she came into movies as the star of Scary Movie. In that film, she was stuck in a poor man's Neve Campbell role by design -- a spoof of a minor star, a winking knockoff. Faris stayed through the franchise throughout four installments, and coming out the other side, she still plays bimbos and cast-offs like Shelley Darlington, a second-string Playboy bunny who has turned 27 without hitting centerfold, and is summarily ejected from the Playboy mansion.
But years of scene-stealing in both indie movies and lowbrow comedies have refined Faris's approachable goofiness, and she finds an original, star-quality approach to playing a cheesy sex bomb. As Shelley, Faris widens her eyes (or as Shelley refers to them, "the nipples of the face") as if she's struggling to see through her own blissful daze, and speaks with a breathy, earnest tone. She's superficial and bubbleheaded, but doesn't have a malicious bone in her toned body; Faris finds comedy in her innocent belief in the healing togetherness of the Playboy fantasy. Shelley's attempts at sexiness are so goofy that they go back around and become sexy again.
The best you can say about The House Bunny is it gives Faris a character and a framework and gets out of her way. In this case, that nearly qualifies as high praise. The bare-bones story: Shelley wanders into a run-down sorority house and offers her services as "house mother" to the misfit Zeta girls, whose lack of pledges threatens their chapter's survival. Makeovers, house parties, revenges of nerds, and lessons follow.
Emma Stone plays Natalie, the girls' ringleader, and finds the right note of believable nerdy awkwardness; as in Superbad, you can almost believe she's geeky and down-to-earth despite being, you know, kind of a stone cold fox already. She and Faris make a good team, but the rest of the sorority keeps crowding the focus. Rather than find five or six personalities, most of the supporting girls are given the one-joke treatment common to so many Adam Sandler comedies (his Happy Madison company produced): one girl has hunchback posture, another never speaks. Most inexplicably, Katharine Mcphee plays a girl who seems to be pregnant only as a vehicle for lame sight gags.
The House Bunny is full of stuff like that -- half-assed jokes that barely make enough noise to even fall flat. But Faris finds the comedic equivalent of an Oscar movie that gets noticed for one or two pieces of bravura acting: fans should see it for her showcase, and nonfans might convert by the end, just as Faris converts her material. Shelley's romance with a vaguely defined do-gooder (played by Colin Hanks as if going along with gag rather than engaging in a feature film), for example, isn't particularly charming as a relationship, but the way Faris plays it is: overflaunting her own seduction techniques on one date, then flailing for intellectual credibility on a second, a deft mix of verbal and physical delivery. These scenes transcend the perfunctory narrative flotsam they ride in on.
The next step, of course, is for Faris to bust out of this likable but rickety Sandler wheelhouse (or at least find something as off-the-wall as You Don't Mess with the Zohan and run wild). But here's the thing: many of the best comedies don't make room for leading women to create full-bodied comic characters (think of the roles afforded to Amy Poehler or Kristen Wiig: cameos, mostly, or close to them). It's tempting to knock The House Bunny as the empty space in which Anna Faris performs. But it gives her that space, and it's just about enough.