Hilarious Woman for Hire

by |
08/26/2008 9:00 AM |

In which Jesse Hassenger sees The House Bunny and pleads for the famousness of Anna Faris.

You may have noticed, as some other blogs did, that the reviews for the new comedy The House Bunny have heaped a lot of praise on its star, Anna Faris, even when dismissing the movie itself. I myself actually paid to see The House Bunny this weekend, willingly and even sort of excitedly, as the culmination of the Anna Faris fandom that I now see has been building across the critical nation, not just in my sad little brain. Realizing your slow-building personal obsession has been occuring simultaneously to literally dozens of other people is one of the best-worst things about this more accessible critical community. I have to wonder how many other critics watched Mama’s Boy, a stillborn Jon Heder/Diane Keaton picture that went direct to DVD in this country, this past weekend just to get a few more moments with Faris (she plays the love interest). Anyway, I understand it: people can see the woman’s talent, find her endearing, and want to spread the word.

I don’t have much experience with the most widely-seen work of the Anna Faris career arc: the Scary Movie franchise (I saw Scary Movie 3 all the way through; the rest in bits on TV or that time I fell asleep watching a Netflixed, and very terrible, Scary Movie 4) and her recurring role on a later season of Friends. But I did notice, at some point, her bizarre two-pronged attack of scene-stealing in personal, largely very good indie-ish movies (Lost in Translation; Brokeback Mountain; May) and broad, largely quite bad full-on comedies (Just Friends; My Super Ex-Girlfriend). Those paths eventually converged on the barely-released and mostly hilarious broad indie comedy Smiley Face; it played for a few weeks at the IFC Center in January before hitting DVD. In it, Faris plays Jane, a layabout actress who eats an entire batch of cupcakes and has to navigate an errand-packed day while very, very stoned. It’s a necessarily meandering movie, which makes the actress’s achievement — namely, making Jane not just funny, but sympathetic and weirdly fascinating — all the greater.

Now comes the flip side to that coin: The House Bunny, her first non-Scary studio lead. Here she plays Shelley Darlington, a Playboy
bunny (though not a centerfold) who gets kicked out of the mansion and
starts a new life as the house mother to a misfit sorority. As many
have pointed out, it’s a concept not too far-removed from Legally Blonde, only Shelley is a real (albeit sweet-natured) ditz, not an overachiever with Valley Girl camo.

Though the movie vaguely implies that Shelley isn’t as dim as she looks, sounds, and acts, it doesn’t need to. Faris excels at taking stubbornly one-note, often hapless characters and imbuing them with comic energy and empathy; just as she finds all of the angles on Jane’s stumbling, she gets a lot of mileage out of Shelley’s upbeat but slightly lost quality. It is, indeed, a wonderful performance: Faris is fearless in her goofiness, and her winning physicality — she can get laughs with a facial expression.

I hoped that The House Bunny might be one of those teen-friendly comedies with a cleverness streak, like Bring It On or even Ten Things I Hate About You (with which it shares its screenwriting team). Instead, it’s pretty much an average teen-targeted comedy in every way, one of those “college” movies where classes only appear in montages, if at all, with a few familiar faces and doofy miss-and-hit gags courtesy of Happy Madison, its Sandler-spawned production company. Despite its eventual compromise that these nerdy girls should be half themselves — quirky, individualistic — and half Shelley — flirty, bubbly, made-up in several senses of the phrase (“maybe sixty percent Shelly,” one even offers) — it’s not deeply offensive; say forty percent. Maybe fifty.

Faris doesn’t really need a good script, although it would be nice; many of her best lines are based on committed or off-kilter delivery, not the verbiage itself (“sweet balls!” would be glib frat-speak in most comedies, but Faris makes it sing). Moreover, I can’t throw much hate towards The House Bunny‘s shortcomings because, for all of its laziness, it’s a movie centered entirely around funny women. Faris is just about the only reason to see it, mind you (although Emma Stone from Superbad is pretty funny as the lead nerd) but unlike, say, a Jim Carrey vehicle, this doesn’t feel like a single comic’s vanity trip. Granted, the supporting sorority girls embody trademark Happy Madison lame running gags, but almost every bit of shtick here, good or bad, goes to a lady.

This is important, because over the past month, I’ve seen a bunch of strong studio comedies — Pineapple Express, Step Brothers, and Tropic Thunder — all characterized by puncturing and toying with male archetypes, leaving women mostly to the sidelines. I don’t think the new comedy elite is sexist; Will Ferrell and Adam McKay wedge some into their movies together (though it takes over an hour for Talladega Nights to give Amy Adams something funny to do), and Judd Apatow always has Leslie Mann on hand, but few of the sketch-and-improv-driven comedies have a comedienne as co-lead. Think about one of the summer’s most celebrated (and justly so) comedies: can you recall a single woman appearing in all of Tropic Thunder? If so, how long did it take for you to remember that Tom Cruise’s character (who is only a step or two up from a cameo appearance) had a secretary?

The obvious solution is to hook Faris up with McKay, or Apatow, or Tina Fey. But for now, The House Bunny (which Faris also produced) can be seen as sort of a calling card: hilarious woman for hire. It won’t have underground cred as it plays at multiplexes as girls’ night out fodder, rather than passed along, bootleg-style, between comedic luminaries, like Danny McBride’s Foot Fist Way (a comedian’s comedy that has everything going for it except laughs), but it should do the job all the same. If I have to share my crush with other critics and sorority girls in order to help Faris out of the Scary Movie/Just Friends/Mama’s Boy ghetto, so be it.