As a smart, cliché-free film, ‘House Bunny’ hops short

Posted Aug. 28, 2008, at 6:10 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.

In theaters

THE HOUSE BUNNY, directed by Fred Wolf, written by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, 98 minutes, rated PG-13.

The new Fred Wolf comedy, “The House Bunny,” stars Anna Faris as Shelley Darlingson, a blond bombshell with perky pipes, a pep in her step and an abundance of hopes and dreams pinned to her chest.

And what a pair of hopes and dreams! Since forever, Shelley has longed to be a Playboy centerfold, and why not? Somebody has to have those dreams. Trouble is, somebody also has to lose them, and that would be poor Shelley. At the ripe old age of 27, she’s no longer considered desirable for Playboy magazine or, for that matter, the Playboy Mansion. As such, she’s booted from Hef’s smoldering nudie shack thanks to other complications that won’t be revealed here.

What can be explored is what happens to Shelley when she becomes a bum Bunny. Being cut loose from the compound isn’t exactly easy for somebody unused to the outside world, but things look up for Shelley when she finds her way to Zeta Alpha Zeta, a sorority that might as well be considered the isle of misfit sorority girls, the lot of whom are played by some pretty dour-looking lasses (Emma Stone, Rumer Willis, Kat Dennings, Katharine McPhee, Kiely Williams, Dana Goodman and Kimberly Makkouk).

Since the girls need several more sisters to join Zeta Alpha Zeta or their sorority will be shut down, Shelley makes it her business to whip them all into shape. Makeovers and boy tips ensue, with Shelley herself learning a few things about life along the way.

There is, it turns out, something to be said for being yourself and hitting the books, which Shelley must learn if she’s going to win over Oliver (Colin Hanks), a nice guy who runs a retirement home and who tolerates her clumsy stabs at sexiness because he sees in her what few have seen before — an endearing, interesting young woman worth getting to know for reasons that go beyond her looks.

Obviously, all of this is modeled after “Legally Blonde,” “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Clueless,” three films that featured scripts that were brighter than most expected. While that isn’t entirely true for “The House Bunny” — the movie is nearly undone by a run of cliches and too many stale jokes to suit — there’s no denying that it’s lifted by the formidable powers of Anna Faris, who is impossible not to like, who has beautiful comic timing and who deserves a better movie than this.

And that’s where the irony hits. Just as Oliver sees in Shelly a wealth of promise that goes beyond mere stereotyping, that’s exactly how Hollywood must start viewing Faris if she’s going to have a fair shot of landing the movies she deserves.

Grade: C+

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

“Smart People” is just out on DVD and Blu-ray disc, so what better time than now to turn to the dictionary for a few words to describe the experience of watching it? Here are a few: Horrible. Boring. Smug. Pointless. Unfunny. Stupid. Misguided. Pretentious. OK, so we didn’t exactly need a dictionary for those words, just as “Smart People” apparently didn’t need a script to tell its story of so few laughs and so little substance.

Throughout, the film’s cast (Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thomas Hayden Church and Ellen Page) slums through a movie that uses its unlikable characters (the exception is Church’s character, who at least has a few funny lines) to fuel an artsy con that has nothing interesting to say about people who presumably are bright, but who nevertheless continue to do dumb things. The result is a banal piece of drivel that has such disregard for its characters, it’s difficult to feel anything for them yourself. They’re just sort of there, going through their canned situations while generating a colossal waste of time for us in the process.

Bolstering the week are three DVDs from the History Channel, including the first seasons of “Shockwave,” which explores a slew of catastrophes caught on video, and then explores in detail what caused each to go wrong. In “Battle 360,” the World War II battleship USS Enterprise has its day in a series that uses computer-enhanced reenactments to re-imagine how that infamous ship weathered the storms of war. And the series “UFO Hunters” looks to the heavens for something — anything — to prove the existence of UFOs. Conspiracy theories abound — Roswell naturally factors into the picture — but most are balanced by a measure of science amid the tomfoolery.

Two other titles are recommended, beginning with “The Untouchables: Season Two, Vol. One,” with Robert Stack as Eliot Ness, who in 1920s Chicago took on Al Capone and company in a series that understood noir and used its elements to nice effect. The molls, the gun battles, the questionable happenings stirring within the shadows — it’s all here, with Stack anchoring it with authority.

Meanwhile, for something completely different (and engaging, even if some might find it flawed in its delivery), check out “Chicago 10,” a part-animated, part live-action documentary about troubling and animated times. The year is 1968, the place is Chicago, the event is the Democratic National Convention, and the situation is dire for the 10 Vietnam War protesters on trial for conspiracy.

Sound familiar? It should. Director Brett Morgen (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”) based his film on the Chicago Seven — Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden, among others — and he expertly uses archival footage to tell their story by igniting (and embellishing it) with trippy animation. That animation can detract from a story powerful enough to be told without it, but if viewed as a vehicle that underscores an unreal slice of American history, the use of that animation works more often than not.

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and an archive of hundreds of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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