The first time I ever really took note of Anna Faris was in 2009, watching the cult comedy Observe & Report with a few friends in an otherwise empty theater. Until then, I was mostly aware of Faris from the Scary Movie franchise, where she was burdened with performing a brutally unfunny parody of the Final Girl archetype from teen slashers. In Observe & Report, Faris found her sweet spot in a much darker, more incisive parody of the Dumb Blonde trope, a truly amazing, upsetting performance that haunts you long after her punchlines are supposed to relieve that tension. It felt like the delayed arrival of a formidable comedic talent, and I’ve been impatiently waiting for Hollywood to catch up and give her bigger, more complicated roles to extrapolate on that dark, chaotic humor.
It turns out I may have missed out on Observe & Report‘s closest competitor as a darkly funny Anna Faris showcase by just a year. 2008’s The House Bunny even features the underutilized actor as its titular lead, a performatively ditzy (but secretly sharp-witted) Playboy Bunny who struggles to adapt to life in The Real World once she ages out of her usefulness as eye candy at Hugh Hefner’s mansion. She quickly adapts by finding a new coven of undervalued women who need her aggressively bubbly outlook to survive life & men’s nonstop cruelties: an unpopular, poorly funded sorority house on a nearby college campus. The resulting underdog story is a classic Animal House-style college campus comedy, in which a small crew of nerdy outcasts learn self-confidence and earn their right to exist in spite of the protests of The Dean & the more popular (i.e. wealthier) kids. And Faris is dead center of this slobs vs. snobs battleground, living her full Marilyn Monroe smart-ditz fantasy.
Sounds perfect, right? How I wish it were. The House Bunny shows flashes of the dark, subversive humor I was hoping to see more of after Observe & Report – a feminist streak assumedly stirred up by screenwriters Karen McCullah & Kristen Smith, the same writing team behind Legally Blonde. Unfortunately, that sentiment is openly at war with the Bro Humor of the film’s production company, Happy Madison, which plays to the ugliest, most politically malevolent tendencies of mainstream American comedy. The very first gag of the film is Faris explaining in voiceover that she was abandoned at an orphanage’s doorstep in a basket, then her birth parents asked for the basket back. It’s a funny, concise, familiar introduction to the shitty life she’s endured since birth, conveying the exact lack of a safety net that would drive a person to survival-based sex work (even at as seemingly quaint of an institution as Playboy). Then comes a rapid series of jokes at the expense of homeless people, Latinx day workers, trans women, and the very sex worker contingent the movie initially seemed sympathetic toward.
I’m not going to exhaustively catalog the various moral or political offenses The House Bunny racks up over its 100min runtime, if not only because moral offense is the exact transgression these bro-friendly Sandler Crew productions thrive on. It’s just worth noting how deeply strange this film is in its continuous self-conflict. There’s a violent tug-of-war between it sympathizing with a ditzy blonde archetype that mainstream cinema usually treats as a passive, victimized sex doll and punching down at the expense of anyone who’s not Normal (read: straight, white, cis, attractive, able-bodied, financially stable, etc.), including that very same ditz. Ultimately, the Legally Blonde Redux undertones win that battle, if not only because Faris is funny enough to pave over the mood-killing Bro Gags that frequently interrupt her schtick. There are plenty of genuine laughs throughout. At the same time, the film often feels like a time capsule distillation of the worst impulses of the Paris Hilton 2000s and the Happy Madison brand at large (I didn’t even get to the grotesque ad placements or the bargain-bin CGI). I almost wish it were made a decade later so Faris’s darkly subversive performance could have shined without all that baggage.
Maybe now that Faris has recently freed herself from CBS Sitcom limbo (after 152 episodes of Mom) she can fulfill her obvious potential in a comedy with a lot fewer groans. It’s been a long, frustrating wait knowing she’s great and not seeing her given the proper space to shine. Although glaringly imperfect, at least The House Bunny tried.