THE WEEKS before Labor Day at movie theaters tend to be a dumping ground for critical duds. But when it opened Friday, "The House Bunny" won surprisingly strong notices for star Anna Faris. Although reviews of the movie were mixed overall, critics singled out Faris' turn as a bubble-headed Playboy bunny, praising her as a worthy heir to such dizzy dames as Carole Lombard and Judy Holliday. And giving audiences a reason to go back to the movies once more before fall.
For Faris, playing dumb has been a smart move. Best known for her recurring role in the "Scary Movie" franchise, Faris has established herself as an expert in the art of blissful ignorance, whether she's playing a vacuous pop star in "Just Friends" or bringing a rare moment of comic relief to "Brokeback Mountain."
Outside of the "Scary Movies," Faris, 31, has usually been relegated to character parts. But with "The House Bunny," she takes center stage as Shelley Darlingson, a Playmate who is booted from the Playboy Mansion for being too old -- 27, or as she's informed, "59 in bunny years." Homeless and with few qualifications beyond the ability to walk in 6-inch heels, Shelley finds a home at Zeta Alpha Zeta, a misfit college sorority on the verge of losing its charter. Charging herself with turning the dowdy Zetas into the hottest girls on campus, Shelley coaches them in the fine art of jiggling and giggling, reminding them that "the eyes are the nipples of the face."
Long confined to supporting roles -- where, as critics often noted, she frequently outshone the stars -- Faris was inspired by the example of comedians such as Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, her costar in the forthcoming "Observe and Report," who write and develop much of their own material. "The boys have been doing it for so long," Faris says, "it just felt like it was time to take the steering wheel."
So she pushed hard for her first studio lead. "As an actress, it's so easy to be passive in your career, just waiting around for somebody to give you a ring and tell you to show up on set in a week. Or not," she says.
The character of Shelley was Faris' own invention, obliquely inspired by the dearth of roles for middle-aged women. "I thought, we know what happens to actresses in their 40s and 50s," she said. "But what happens when you're a model or a Playboy bunny and you're too old? What skills do you have?"
Faris brought the character to writers Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, whose "Legally Blonde" catapulted Reese Witherspoon into the top rank of Hollywood actresses. Her original conception of Shelley was, she admits, "much darker": a hardened drug addict returning home to her conservative small town, perhaps to her abusive father. The reaction, fortunately, was skeptical. "When I told the writers, they were like, 'Hmmm. Or she could become a house mom!' " Faris says.
Squeezed into Shelley's skimpy costumes, Faris pitched the character to several studios before making a deal with Sandler's Happy Madison productions. The result was her first leading role in a studio movie, as well as her first executive producer credit.
Faris got her first taste of being in the front seat in 2007's "Smiley Face." As a struggling, stoned-to-the-gills actress, she dominates the movie's every scene, wandering the streets of greater Los Angeles in a bong-smoke haze. When "Smiley Face" premiered at Sundance, critics hailed Faris' performance as a comic tour de force, predicting that it would instantly upgrade her from supporting parts to leading roles. But, after letting the Sundance heat cool to a dull glow, the movie's distributor gave it the scantest of token releases, opening it in a handful of theaters in the thick of the holiday season -- not exactly high time for stoner comedies.
Still, "Smiley Face" proved Faris could carry a movie, and her constant presence on set during the brisk 30-day shoot allowed her to take "more of a leadership role." "I was so passionate about that movie. I still am. It's such an unusual character for a woman to be able to play. It's the only role I've played so far that has no love interest. Well, I guess, weed."
The bubbly, bodacious Shelley is a world away from "Smiley Face's" disheveled slacker, but they share a certain wide-eyed innocence, a quality Faris has specialized in since the first "Scary Movie," directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans. "I remember asking Keenen why he cast me," Faris says. "He said, 'Because you had no idea what you were doing.' I've thought about that answer a lot, and I totally agree with him. I was just willing -- the nerdy girl in class who always raises her hand. 'I can do it! Call on me!' "
Although Faris is no longer a newbie, the can-do attitude persists, which is how, during filming of "The House Bunny," she found herself atop the hood of a wet, soapy car in a tiny bikini and platform shoes. "It was really unsafe," she says with a laugh. "But I'll do just about anything for the character."