THE HOUSE BUNNY is yet another variation on the theme that it’s always better to be yourself. Only better. Of course, that takes a broad swath of heavy make-up, push-up bras, and platform sandals of dizzying heights. It’s a mixed message designed to sell what it purports to subvert, also known as having it both ways, but while falling short in that attempt, it makes two excellent choices. One, it casts Anna Faris in the title role. Two, it casts Emma Stone as her geeky sorority foil.
The bunny in question is Shelley, an orphan who had no family until she blossomed into gorgeous womanhood and, as a result, went to live at the Playboy Mansion. Shelley thought that this was the happy ending to her fairy tale until her 27th birthday. Actually, the morning after, when in addition to blueberry French toast and chili-spiked orange juice, she finds a note on her breakfast tray from Hef, that would be Hugh Hefner. Instead of fulfilling all her dreams by asking her to be the November playmate of the month, he orders her out of the mansion. The blossom, it seems, is faded at Shelley’s advanced age, which comes to 59 in bunny years. Homeless, desperate, and not terribly clear on the concept, she bumbles into the Zeta Alpha Zeta sorority house, who, it turns out, need a house mother. They also need a miracle in the form of 30 pledges in order to keep their charter and their house. The seven rag-tag Zetas, led by Natalie (Stone), may have brains, but social skills, and a sense of style, not so much. It’s a match made in heaven as Shelley coaches the girls in the fine art of tarting up and throwing a good party, and the girls coach Shelley on how to win Oliver (Colin Hanks), the reedy and sweet manager of a retirement home, when her usual methods, learned at the Mansion fail to do the trick.
There are no surprises in this tale. Everyone learns a valuable lesson, the snooty, including the pompous sorority across the street and their house mother, played by Beverly D’Angelo, get a comeuppance, and Hef’s three girlfriends get to be in the movie. The dialogue ranges from dismal to hackneyed to occasionally serviceable. What brings it alive is a performance by Faris that is delightful. Dressed in wisps of cloth, emphatic lip-liner, and spouting lines of advice such as the eyes are the nipples of the face, she is so completely an innocent, dare I say it, pure soul, with an altruistic heart that is a solid 24kt gold that she can and does win over even the most cynical grouch in the audience. And while Shelley is not educated, Faris doesn’t make her dumb, which is a neat trick and one more than worthy of praise. Also praiseworthy is Stone, who goes from gangly and awkward, to polished in grooming, but with an endearing morsel of that awkwardness present. The push-up bra might get Natalie the attention, but the childlike glee in finally getting the attention of her longtime crush is far more fetching. As for the rest of the sorority, stereotypes all, from the shy girl who hides in the closet, to the radical feminist who reduces every inter-gender interaction to a dialectic, none of which, alas, are as pithy as they think they are.
THE HOUSE BUNNY pays lip service to sisterhood while cashing in on very, very short shorts. The hypocrisy is grating, so much so that even Faris, who can wear pink rhinestones and a bustier with admirable conviction, can’t save it.