Even Elle Woods couldn’t “bend and snap”
this film into a success.
In screenwriting team Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith’s big screen adaptation of Amanda Brown’s novel Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon taught Jennifer Coolidge (a.k.a. Stiffler’s mom) how to “bend and snap” men into submission by offering them the most flattering view of their figures. However, while Witherspoon’s ditzy character’s transformation from sorority bimbo to Harvard law student garnered critical acclaim and award nominations, in recycling their Blonde script into the far more degrading House Bunny, McCullah Lutz and Smith offer us a film that’s all about the proverbial “bend” with none of the refreshing “snap” of Blonde’s witty dialogue. Although I didn’t worship Legally Blonde as much as most viewers, I still feel it’s a frothy, forgettable, and escapist film that served its purpose brilliantly in making us laugh after the tragic events of 9/11 (when it was re-released specifically for that purpose the second time that year) mostly due to Witherspoon’s undeniable charm.
Cut to seven years later and likewise the similarly themed Bunny benefits from the vastly underrated Anna Faris. She first caught my attention with her scene-stealing turn in Lost in Translation (until I realized that Sofia Coppola most likely modeled her on Cameron Diaz which makes the caricature seem a bit mean-spirited) and later impressed me again as one of the brightest additions to the final season of television’s hit show Friends.
In Strange Wilderness director Fred Wolf’s House Bunny (produced by Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions), Faris is cast as Shelley Darlingson, a Playboy Bunny who’s ousted from Hef’s mansion the morning after she turns twenty-seven. No longer able to lounge around in bikinis at the pool, flirt with celebrities, shop on Hef’s dime or drive the company’s pink Prius, Shelley eventually lands in jail after being mistaken for a prostitute, which offered the writers the first opportunity to gently season their lighthearted comedy with a subtle commentary about Playboy’s objectification of women, yet they missed the mark completely.
Of course, after they’ve turned from ugly ducklings to Spice Girls, Shelley and the girls realize that inner beauty is what counts and in a perfunctory fashion the screenwriters try to work in this message half-heartedly far too late into the picture. Ultimately even the likable Anna Faris can’t make up for House Bunny’s complete lack of respect for the intelligence of its audience and especially its narrow and sexist view of women and men alike.
Let’s just say that McCullah Lutz and Smith may joke via Shelley that they “know what boys like,” but obviously they don’t know what thinking men and women like. And as a feminist who not only adores men but as a film lover — who has a circle of mostly male friends — I’m proud to say that a large majority of both genders will find this ridiculous. However, as a woman and one individual, I can only speak for myself in saying that when it comes to representing our gender, I rank McCullah Lutz and Smith in the same regrettable company as Dr. Laura along with the contestants on The Bachelor, Wife Swap, and America’s Next Top Model.
This is especially unfortunate as Faris, a sunny, guileless beauty who will do anything for a laugh, tries her hardest to make the script work, playing her role as a sort of cross between Marilyn Monroe and Judy Holliday. It’s definitely most notable when we realize that as a Playboy Bunny she’s never actually been on a real date and struggles with coming on first too ridiculously sexy and then as a faux intellectual. For the fullest effect, check out these priceless clips as she tries to win over Colin Hanks’ (yes, the son of Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks) earnest do-gooder over the course of two monumentally awful dates.
And you know it’s bad when Hugh Hefner earns the most audience sympathy in a few choice comedic scenes and our romantic leading man plays a character so one-dimensional, he may as well have just been dubbed “Shelley’s Date” instead of even given an actual name. Although he’s had little opportunity to prove himself in other work, Hanks is likable (it runs in his family after all) so therefore it’s woefully unfortunate that the writers were so compelled to include a romantic subplot that they didn’t even try to offer us anything new, creating yet another one of these bland, interchangeable, asexual, and neutered romantic comedy males (think Michael Vartan in Never Been Kissed or Mark Ruffalo in 13 Going on 30). I couldn’t help but think that the film would’ve benefited from deleting his character altogether and making it solely about Shelley’s Pygmalion-like journey with the other girls as they each begin to bring out the best in one another. Although that wish was dashed from the start when it begins structured like a fairy-tale without a trace of irony with Hef’s mansion as the film’s version of a royal palace and Shelley’s ultimate goal to become a centerfold.
Admittedly, as ultimately a sorority plot-driven film, I knew it wouldn’t be as bold or daring as the Christina Ricci independent vehicle Pumpkin which found her superficial character overcoming prejudice in falling for a mentally disabled athlete. But after viewing these two early House Bunny scenes of Faris and the girls (shown below), I was sorely disappointed that when you have a cast filled with talented stars including both Emma Stone and Kat Dennings, it’s a shame that more wasn’t done with the young women’s storyline other than forcing Stone to go through a humiliating “sacrificing of the virgin” jello lava slide into punch at an Aztec-themed party.
Therefore, all in all, while Witherspoon’s Elle Woods will never be mistaken for a celebration of sexual equality, compared to Shelley Darlingson, she seems like a modern-day version of Gloria Steinem. And while I have no doubt that some will call my reaction to the film overly harsh and typical of my gender (and I predict, to misquote the title of Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 epic, "There Will Be Comments"), I must assure you that it has nothing to do with those facts nor that as the same age as Shelley’s character, I’m not upset that the film informed me that I’m fifty-nine in bunny years.
No, instead, I just feel that wisdom should go along with age and no matter how old you are in bunny years, you’ll take it upon yourselves to seek out just what makes something truly funny and heartfelt for both men as well as women. And as Elle Woods might say, may I be as bold as to suggest going for something with much more “snap,” and a bit less “bend?”