Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The House Bunny

By Elise Nakhnikian

Maybe I’m as hopelessly optimistic as Shelley, the eternal innocent whose expulsion from the Eden of the Playboy Mansion sets the story in motion, but I actually had high hopes for The House Bunny.

Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith have written some nice screenplays, and this sounded a lot like Legally Blond, which is one of their best. Like that highly satisfying girl-power revenge fantasy, The House Bunny is about a hot little blond, perky but shallow, who proves there’s more to her than meets the eye. And, just as Reese Witherspoon was perfect as the steel magnolia of Blond, Anna Faris was an inspired choice to play Bunny’s comically clueless, sexy-sweet, solid-gold-hearted heroine.

The opener is funny enough, as Shelley sunnily narrates the fractured “fairy tale” story of her blighted youth, but things quickly turn creepy when we cut to the present and watch her frolic about the Mansion, like a lamb that’s never heard of shish kebab.

I know we live in a post-feminist Suicide Girls/Mary Gaitskill/Diablo Cody era of empowered sex workers, but, please, Hugh Hefner as a daddy figure? I think (though it’s a little hard to be sure) that the filmmakers see Shelley’s love of the Playboy Mansion as a delusion she needs to grow out of, but must we keep flashing back to Hef as he mopes about in his pjs, mourning the loss of his perky little Shelley? Guess it’s hard out there for a pimp.

After her exile from the Mansion (a devious plot cooked up by a mean-girl rival, of course, since Hef would never do anything to hurt one of his girls), Shelley finds herself homeless and penniless, dumped even by her cat. But she soon stumbles onto Zeta Alpha Zeta, a sorority in need of a live-in house mother – and an IV infusion of fabulosity.

Zeta is about to lose its house because its members, a six-pack of assorted losers, can’t attract any guys – and therefore can’t get new pledges. So Shelley, who is to guys what flypaper is to flies, signs on as house mother, promising to teach the girls how to attract the 30 pledges they need to stay open.

Faris works as hard to sell the movie as Shelley does to lure pledges. You can’t help but like the sunny goofball, but even Faris can’t turn the collection of punch lines and pratfalls that is Shelley into a coherent character. Her fractured English can be funny (she thinks a brothel is a place where they make soup), but it’s more cringe-inducing than comic when she thanks people for calling her “vapid,” assuming that it’s a compliment. And how could this Mansion-forged hot chick forget everything she knows about seduction the minute she goes on a date?

The other actresses have even less to work with. Each of the Zetas has one distinguishing trait that’s exaggerated way past the point of humor – though Emma Stone’s Natalie has some endearingly funny moments, especially when she starts working up a head of enthusiasm about some ludicrously dorky idea.

Directed by Fred Wolf, a long-time sketch writer for Saturday Night Live, The House Bunny plays like a series of skits, prone to skittering off on tangents and losing its internal logic. As fractured and senseless as the mangled amalgamation of fairy tales Shelley runs through in her opening narration, it combines bits of other classic tales at random, from Cinderella to Animal House.

Or maybe it’s more like a series of music videos, since all those scenes of girls primping and partying and getting guys and supposedly finding themselves tend to be scored (and underscored) by songs that talk about getting guys and having fun and finding yourself. The songs are awfully familiar, too. With heavy-rotation numbers like When I Grow Up, I Know What Boys Like, Girlfriend, and New Soul dotting the soundtrack, you start to feel like you’re waiting in line at Starbucks. Worse yet, you wish you were, since that would be a lot less annoying than sitting through this.

By the time we get to the makeover montage, it’s redundant: This whole movie is essentially a makeover montage. Shelley and the women of Zeta try on new personas like little girls changing outfits on their Barbies, urging each other to “be yourself, only different.” For a moment – and it literally lasts for just about a moment – the Zetas even turn into what they have hated for all these years, rejecting the pledges they’ve attracted for the shallowest of reasons.

Meanwhile, the camera leers at Faris, practically peering up her skirt at one point, and there’s a positively icky scene of the girls dancing with nursing home residents to show how philanthropic they are. This is also the kind of movie where all bystanders freeze in their tracks to watch when one of the characters does something in public, whether it’s making a fool of yourself at a restaurant or shedding a body brace to emerge as (surprise!) a smokin’ hot babe.

If a good comedy lifts your spirits, a movie like The House Bunny weighs them down. Pretty vapid, girls.

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