The House Bunny turns 10: In praise of Anna Faris' silly-sweet Playboy comedy
The summer of 2008 broke history, and rebuilt it. America suffered through a bitter presidential election on the road to a globewrecking financial crisis. In theaters, cinematic generations were rising — and falling. Superheroes, Will Smith, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Emma Stone, Mike Myers, Sisterhoods and Step Brothers, Batman, and ABBA, adaptations of TV shows we still tweet about, new installments of movie franchises studios won’t stop rebooting: everything Hollywood was before, alongside everything it still is.
In our weekly column Two Thousand Late, we’ve explored the big hits and curious flops from a summer that has never really ended. Last week: The boys of Tropic Thunder. This week: Critic at large Leah Greenblatt and TV critic Darren Franich rediscover the sisterhood of The House Bunny.
LEAH: Darren, can you believe The House Bunny is 10 years old? That’s like, 35 in movie years. I think we can both agree that this not what you would call a quality film; still, if the Academy really is giving out popularity prizes now, I would give half an Oscar, or at least the statuette’s little gold butt part, to Anna Faris.
Hollywood has given us a million iterations of the dizzy blond, I know. But there’s something so brilliant about her Shelley — an aspiring Playmate whose greatest ambition in life is to be Miss November, and maybe learn how to use “hence” in a sentence. (We do know that she’s not looking to make soup.)
A full decade before Faris made a misguided and ultimately totally unnecessary remake of Overboard, she was already giving us her best Goldie Hawn: that kind of fantastic daffiness you can only pull off if you’re actually pretty freaking smart. I like to think of it as sort of the stealth acting equivalent of Dolly Parton’s “Honey, it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.”
Anyway the premise, if you remember, is that Shelley is booted out of the Playboy Mansion for committing the time crime of turning 27, a.k.a. “59 in Bunny years,” and is forced to find a new, Hefner-free life for herself in the outside world. When she stumbles on a band of sorority misfits in need of a house mother — including future Oscar winner Emma Stone, and future Fifth Mrs. David Foster Katherine McPhee — she believes she’s finally found her calling.
The plot isn’t especially memorable, and a bunch of the jokes don’t really land. And yet, there is so much to love: Colin Hanks as Shelley’s love interest, putting his perfectly Hanks-y perplexed face to maybe its best use ever; the recurring gag where all the animals in the neighborhood howl whenever she opens the door to her beater station wagon; the way she delivers the line “the eyes are the nipples of the face.”
But you tell me, did this movie hold up for you? Or was it just never your bag of rabbits to begin with?
DARREN: I feel awkward here, Leah, as awkward as Emma Stone flirtatiously repeating “BATTLESTAR GALACTICA!” through a mouthful of hot dog. I completely missed The House Bunny on the first go-round. Actually, embarrassing journalist revelation: I somehow interviewed Anna Faris without ever seeing The House Bunny. (I had a lot of Mom questions! Mom is a good show!) So watching it for the first time this week was a low-key revelation.
I think you’re right on with your Faris praise. This is one of those post-2000 movie comedies that overdoses on musical montages — I’ll see your Pussycat Dolls’ “When I Grow Up” and raise you one Rihanna’s “Take a Bow”! But I think my favorite moment comes during Shelley’s mental makeover, set to Yael Naim’s “New Soul,” aka “The La La La Song.” There’s something halfway balletic in the way Farris piles high her textbooks, chair-rolling between huge tomes, committing blessed facts to memory. And her two dates with Colin Hanks are comedy bliss. “Can I get it with just one mahi?” “I’m definitely pro-Hawaii.” “Your biceps are huge, kiss me!”
The storytelling’s definitely a bit shaggy, though I think college comedies are less about plot than about getting a compelling group of people together in a setting you’d like to party in. And the Zetas rock! Stone’s a perfect regular-person counterbalance for Faris, pinpointing a chatty-quirky bantering style, “we could, like, play some form of dodgeball, maybe!” (I’m stoked for everything Stone’s accomplished in the ensuing decade — winning an Oscar, hitting Broadway, making everyone forget about Amazing Spider-Man 2 — but I miss her in pure comedies. Easy A for life!) And Kat Dennings really had the market cornered circa 2008 on Hollywood’s idea of hipsterdom: Rocking a flannel shirt and a flannel attitude, throwing out complaints about “An archaically superficial reflection of the male fantasy!” like she’s pre-writing her own movie’s Jezebel thinkpiece.
I’m with the movie through most of Act 2. The Aztec Party is a suitably insane: virgin sacrifice, semi-functional frontyard volcano, all the sorority sisters dressed in Fay Wray chic. And I kinda dig the big turn toward the end, when the Zetas (briefly) become everything they despise. But there are a couple different mission statements here that can’t quite thread together: Tell a story about sisterhood and conjure up a piece of Playboy propaganda, with Hugh Hefner himself playing the kindest possible notion of Hugh Hefner. Like, it’s a super sharp idea to begin with Shelley getting kicked out of the Playboy Mansion because she’s an elderly 27-year-old. When that all turns out to be a misunderstanding — a plot by Shelley’s nemesis! — some of the air goes out of the movie for me.
Was there anything on this rewatch that stuck out to you more than the first time you saw the movie, Leah? Or anything that played differently in 2018? I have to admit, I felt an insanely guilty burst of 2000s nostalgia when the Girls Next Door ladies appeared onscreen. Ah, for the days when reality show loons weren’t so president-adjacent!
LEAH: I got a strong bolt of nostalgia from seeing the Girls Next Door girls, and of course Hef, too (rest in peace and questionable gender politics, Pervy Pajama Grandpa).
It’s true that the movie sort of ingeniously slaps rainbow and kitten emojis all over the ickier aspects of the Playboy empire — which is why I especially love the small moments when Shelley refers to a Mansion life that was maybe a little darker than roller skates and Shaq popping by for birthday cake; remember the throwaway bit about getting roofied, or that her real-world example of “philanthropy” was letting Bob Saget grind on her during a slow dance?
But overall there’s such an innocence to the whole thing, and a sweetness too — way more than other contemporary hard-R comedies like say, Ted, or Harold & Kumar. Faris reminds me a lot of Will Ferrell or Steve Carrell, all the –ells: They will happily take humor to the most ridiculous, raunchy place, but it never feels hard or mean-spirited. The joke is always aimed in the mirror, even if it’s a funhouse one.
Faris has made a career out of playing bouncy air-bubble blonds (okay fine, she was brunette in Scary Movie) and she takes that to its loony Hollywood extreme here, on her own terms. It’s maybe my favorite performance of hers outside of Lost in Translation, which I still think she’s way underrated for. The demon voice Shelley repeats back as a memory device when she learns someone’s name for the first time? I have friends who still do that in social situations. Never apologize, never explain.
The two credited screenwriters, Karen McCullah and Kristen Smith, also wrote Legally Blonde and 10 Things I Hate About You, so they’ve more than earned their spot in the things-you’ve-watched-47-times-on-a-rainy-TBS-Saturday pantheon. I do think they let things get pretty fuzzy around the midway point, and the teachable moments are basically done in skywriting. (Learning is fundamental! Be true to yourself and love will follow! When in doubt, buy a water bra!)
But I still had a lot of fun going back to this again. It was good to be reminded that Bunny gave Tyson Ritter from All American Rejects his first real acting job, and that head sorority mean girl Sarah Wright was great in American Made last year with Tom Cruise, which I wish more people had seen. And that all Faris needs to shine again on a big screen is more good material — and at least one Mahi.
Complete Summer 2008 Schedule:
May 2: Iron Man and Made of Honor
May 9: Speed Racer
May 16: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
May 22: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull
May 30: Sex and the City
June 6: Kung Fu Panda
June 13: The Happening
June 20: The Love Guru
June 27: WALL-E
July 2: Hancock
July 11: Hellboy II: The Golden Army
July 18: The Dark Knight
July 25: Step Brothers
Aug. 1: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Aug. 13: Tropic Thunder
Aug. 22: The House Bunny