The myth of Anna Faris is that her comic talents transcend her routinely awful material. At her best—as a pop princess in Just Friends and as the depressingly hapless stoner in Smiley Face -– Faris excels because she’s willing to contort herself to fit the sort of humiliation endemic to many popular male comedians. Even in Lost in Translation, she returns to the same archetype, a beautiful woman so daft about social conventions that she’s grotesque. It’s a refinement of the fart-sniffing playmate shtick Jenny McCarthy got away with for a while in the ‘90s, and reaches its natural conclusion with The House Bunny.
When Shelley (Faris) is booted out of the Playboy Mansion for being “too old” at 27, she becomes the house mother for a sorority at California University (an illustrious fake school that counts Elle Woods, Zach Morris, and Brandon Walsh as alumni). Zeta House is home to a rogue’s gallery of hateful “damaged women” stereotypes (too virginal, too short, too masculine, too pregnant, too feminist), all struggling to find the 30 pledges necessary to keep the house from being absorbed by the bitchy preppies across the street. Shelley deploys her knowledge of partying and boys, leading to an inevitable makeover montage, turning the losers into Bratz dolls. The film then asks us to accept uncritically their compromises with the Playboy Bunny, who endures an on-point deconstruction by pierced-and-short-shorn Feminist Zeta (Kat Dennings) as an anachronistic vision of femininity as visual playground for the male viewer. Feminist Zeta, by the way, looks like Avril Lavigne after her transformation, and is all the happier for it.
Here and elsewhere, the movie can barely contain its contempt for women, mocking broad types while promoting the milky-white middle as the proper place to be. It’s surprising stuff from Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, who wrote Legally Blonde and also 10 Things I Hate About You, still the brightest of the late ‘90s teenpics: Julia Stiles’ uncompromised feminism is treated as admirable, winning even, as she mocks the young men falling over themselves to date her blandly femme sister. Here, Stiles would be posing for pin-ups by the third reel.
The House Bunny is truly toxic, telling women to hate their bodies and hide their talents (Shelley’s suggestion that one Zeta pretend she’s stupid to attract boys is treated unironically), while masking itself in “enlightened” discourse about ageism, lookism, and that What Really Counts is Inside. Shelley’s own education (Faris’ eyes go wide as Don Knotts’ during a studying montage) is in desperate pursuit of a guy (a characteristically bland Colin Hanks) who’s not interested in dating an absolute idiot. The patriarchal order is reasserted: women bending over backwards to get boys to like them, as the men are perfect just the way they are. These include Hugh Hefner, who, in an extended cameo, is made out to be an all right fella, a softie, even.
Occasionally, the film is funny, almost in spite of itself. When Shelley dons a pair of coke-bottle glasses in order to look smart, Faris manages the same sort of extraordinary pratfalls that made her turn in Just Friends so entertaining. As Natalie, geeky leader of the Zeta girls, Emma Stone is condemned to stutter and allude to Battlestar Galactica, but she underplays winningly and with comic precision. Still, the movie can’t resist abusing her: an offhand reference to Natalie’s virginity leads to a hugely budgeted Aztec Party at the Zeta house, complete with a Jell-O volcano that she must slide down as “sacrifice.” This moment and surrounding plot are rendered with some of the choppiest editing I’ve seen in a mainstream picture in years: sightlines don’t match and scene geography is confused.
Other ineptitude is less technical, more depressing. When one of several underdeveloped villains (Beverly D’Angelo, of all people), is angry with the president of the mean sorority (Sarah Wright), she thwacks the girl in the breast. The jackass behind me evidently thought this surprising eruption of violence against the female anatomy was the funniest thing ever, because it gave him occasion to slap his knee as he chortled stupidly. As pointless as this moment may be – two characters we haven’t been compelled to even remember the names of interacting for the first time in the entire picture – it’s emblematic of The House Bunny‘s overarching thoughtless, incompetent misogyny.