The House Bunny (Columbia Pictures, PG-13)

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film_house-bunny_sm.jpgFaris is now a topliner with The House Bunny, a movie about—yes—a dim-bulb Playboy bunny named Shelley who leaves the comfort and party-all-day atmosphere of her life at the Playboy Mansion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Anna Faris has made quite a career for herself playing lovably ditzy characters, characters who are often so painfully sincere that you forgive them their insipid or cloying dialogue. There's no one quite like Faris onscreen, however; she finds ways to be so quirky in her delivery, so unpredictable, that it messes with your expectations. She's got the looks and appeal to play fairly straight roles (which she's been lucky enough to do in acclaimed films like Brokeback Mountain and Lost in Translation), but directors usually cast her as sweet but clueless dim bulbs (the Scary Movie franchise) or hyperactive ingénues of one sort or another.

One of Faris's best roles was in Just Friends, in which she played a narcissistic rock star who was a thorn in her manager's (Ryan Reynolds) side. Director Roger Kumble turned Faris loose in that film, and she was aggressively eccentric and hilarious, stealing all her scenes from her better-known costar.

Faris is now a topliner with The House Bunny, a movie about—yes—a dim-bulb Playboy bunny named Shelley who leaves the comfort and party-all-day atmosphere of her life at the Playboy Mansion (scenes were actually filmed there, and Hugh Hefner himself appears) and somehow ends up as the house mother at a beleaguered sorority. The thin plot finds the potentially homeless Shelley wandering onto a college campus, where she's promptly rejected by the more popular and uppity girls of Phi Iota Mu. But over at the Zeta house, a lack of pledges has caused a crisis: the Zetas will have their charter revoked unless they can get 30 new pledges in short order.

That's a daunting task, as the Zetas are campus misfits—a sort of female Revenge of the Nerds bunch, with bits of Animal House thrown in. Brightest among them is Natalie (Emma Stone), who is intrigued when Shelley shows up and sees the possibilities for changing the Zetas' image if this buxom blonde beauty can attract some guys to the sorority. Also on hand are the very pregnant Harmony (Katherine McPhee from American Idol), the dour Mona (Kat Dennings) and the earnest Joanne (Rumer Willis) who's saddled with wearing a metallic upper-body brace that makes for some cheap laughs and sets up a slight parody of a famous scene from Forest Gump later in the film.

You can see what's coming, of course: Shelley transforms these fashion-challenged outsiders into mega-babes, even helping them shoot a calendar that will raise enough money to make a donation to a local nursing home where Shelley's would-be boyfriend Oliver (Colin Hanks) is employed. There's a couple of flashy sequences of the girls getting all dolled up which are undeniably entertaining, utilizing songs such as "I Know What Boys Like" and, more fortuitously, a pair of stellar dance tunes by The Ting Tings, one of the hottest acts in pop right now. And seeing the previously morose Zetas give in to "an archaically superficial version of the male fantasy," as one of them puts it, is a hoot.

But the movie's trajectory is slight. Will the girls be able to get their 30 pledges before the deadline? Will the nasty Phi Mu's (favored by an under-utilized Beverly D'Angelo) sabotage their plans? Will Shelley retain Oliver's interest once he discovers she's a Bunny and not his intellectual equal, to put it mildly? And will you care? Those are the questions, but it's possible to enjoy this daffy little trifle of a movie even with minimal suspense.

The cast clearly has fun going through these campus motions, with Stone turning in the best performance as a likable brainiac who just needs a little help to bring out the beauty hiding behind her glasses and plain clothes. Faris herself actually delivers a rather composed performance, though hints of her quirkiness shine through (whenever she meets a new person, she repeats their name in a low growl—"It's just something I do to help me with names," she explains). Some of the dialogue is tough to take (the script by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith goes for the obvious most of the time), and though Faris makes a convincing Playmate, she doesn't really break new ground as an actress.

But at a brisk 97 minutes, this movie is reasonably entertaining for most of its run time, and there's always mileage in the tried-and-true "campus favorites vs. misfits" theme. There's also at least a small kick in glimpsing some of the action at the legendary Playboy Mansion: The House Bunny is the first movie to be allowed to film there. | Kevin Renick

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