Does every little girl dream of being a Playboy Bunny? Much as parents, feminists and sensible adults everywhere would like to believe otherwise, there’s a reason those T-shirts with the rabbit-ear logo now come in smaller and smaller sizes. Take a look at the E! channel’s reality show “The Girls Next Door,” which chronicles the escapades of Hugh Hefner’s three real-life live-in “girlfriends.” It’s a preteen fantasy: Hef consorts Bridget, Holly and Kendra look like Barbies and live in a Dream House, with a sugar daddy who’s presented as a crusty, sexless, very generous old uncle. They spend their time shopping and slurping up fruity drinks, and the hardest decision they have to make is what to order for lunch. Who doesn’t dream of being a sybaritic courtesan from time to time?
The House Bunny is an extended riff on that notion. Shelley (Anna Faris) is a poor orphan girl lucky enough to be taken into the ample bosom of the Bunny family — a fate she sees, unironically, as a fairy tale. Living in the mansion with the Girls Next Door (who appear as themselves, along with Hef), she has only one unfulfilled aspiration: to be a centerfold. But her 27th birthday comes with a peremptory order to vacate the Playboy Mansion — perhaps because she’s “59 in Bunny years,” a friend points out.
Cast out of paradise, unequipped for a life she can’t hobble through on five-inch platforms, Shelley wanders the streets, gets mistaken for a common prostitute — the horror! — and ends up finding a new home at a sorority that needs a house mother desperately enough to employ her. Zeta Alpha Zeta is in danger of losing its charter if it can’t draw new pledges. Naturally, this being a Hollywood comedy, the problem is that the Zetas aren’t “hot” enough to attract boys. Can a Bunny help these geeks and misfits transform themselves into man bait? Well, duh. To judge by this movie, all it takes is a push-up bra, hair extensions and a penchant for adorable malapropism.
Dumb as this plot sounds, it’s not that farfetched. In 2006, after learning that the sisters of their Depauw University chapter were known on campus as “socially awkward,” national officers of the Delta Zeta sorority ousted the majority, calling them “insufficiently committed” to recruitment goals. As it happened, many of the expelled girls were non-white or overweight, whereas “[t]he dozen students allowed to stay were slender and popular with fraternity men,” reported The New York Times.
While the real-life Zetas made a stink, the movie’s Zetas do their best to conform to the campus caste system. Screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, the team behind Legally Blonde, walk a fine line between satirizing the Bunny ideal and embracing it. Naturally, there’s a subplot in which Shelley finds her usual wiles don’t work on a man of substance (Colin Hanks) because — wait for it — “Maybe he doesn’t mind a smart girl.” But we never learn if Zeta sister Natalie (Emma Stone) can live happily ever after with the frat boy she wooed by pretending to be an eyelash-batting fool.
Where playing dumb is concerned, Faris is a shrewd actress with tons of experience, and she raises this pedestrian comedy to occasional silly highs. Widening her eyes and twitching her top lip in a way that may indicate too many Restylane injections or just chronic bewilderment, Shelley excels at absurdist pronouncements such as “The eyes are the nipples of the face.” Unlike Elle Woods of Legally Blonde, who only looked like a bimbo, she’s as genuinely, good-heartedly stupid as Sancho Panza.
Film and literature will always have their buffoons, and little girls will always have their princess fantasies. But one of these days, it would be nice to see a movie address the creepiness of the Bunny role-model phenomenon head on. Marilyn Monroe had a point — as sweetly passive “hotties” get older, men get colder. Let’s hope the real-life Shelleys have diamonds squirrelled away.