'The House Bunny': Butterflies, By Kurt Loder

Anna Faris heads up an irresistible ensemble comedy.

How's a girl to score with a hot guy? According to exiled Playboy Bunny Shelley Darlingson (Anna Faris), the secret is ocular contact. Remember, she says, "The eyes are the nipples of the face."

Shelley was banished from the Playboy Mansion the morning after her fabulous 27th-birthday party, which also turned out to be the cutoff point for aging Bunnies. Now, following a series of bumbling adventures on perilously high pink platform sandals, she has wound up as the house mother at a college sorority. Unfortunately, it's Zeta House, home of the most pathetic sisters on campus. Zeta's membership is minimal, and the handful of girls in residence are all losers: one's a male-loathing Goth, one has a full-body spinal brace, another is pregnant. The snooty bitches at the nearby Phi Iota Mu house (led by hissable Sarah Wright) have targeted them for termination, and indeed, the Zetas are about to lose their charter and be turned out of their beloved home. Can Shelley transform these rejects into varsity vixens? Do ya think?

"The House Bunny" is an unabashedly formulaic movie — you know where it's going and you pretty much know what's going to happen when it gets there. What makes it one of the summer's funniest pictures is the actresses playing the Zeta girls, who are vividly pitiful, and, especially, Anna Faris, whose Shelley, with her great big eyes, microscopic skirts and plump, quizzical lips, is entirely and hilariously lovable. Shelley is a ditz, no question ("My heart is beating like a nail," she blurts at one point), but she's not stupid. She's simply been trained since puberty to be man-bait. Now she's passing on the lessons she's learned — the mysteries of makeup and water bras — to a group of dweebs for whom men are a previously unexperienced species.

For example, sorority president Natalie (Emma Stone, stepping up toward stardom) appears never to have had a date. Shelley coaches her in how best to snag the guy of her dreams (played with goofball charm by All-American Rejects frontman Tyson Ritter). Similarly pertinent advice is ladled out to the over-pierced Mona (Kat Dennings), the brace-bound Joanne (Rumer Willis) and the luxuriantly pregnant Harmony (who doesn't need all that much help, played as she is by the splendid Katharine McPhee). Before long, of course, the girls all blossom. "You're a butterfly now," Shelly tells one of them, "not an earthworm."

I have not given away the best lines in this movie — an indication, I hope, of how consistently funny it is. Along with the zingers, there are also some nicely designed set-piece scenes, among them a pair of disastrous dates (with Colin Hanks rearing back in horror on both of them) and an elaborate "Aztec party" at which the Zetas have no trouble at all finding a virgin to mock-sacrifice.

The movie's script is by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, who — tiny surprise — also wrote "Legally Blonde." Like that picture — underestimated at the time of its release, but in retrospect a small classic — "The House Bunny" also contains, along with many laughs, a low-key message about the importance of being yourself, no matter how offbeat that self may be. There's nothing new about this bromide, but it's always strangely gratifying to find it delivered with such an irresistible comic spirit.

Check out everything we've got on "The House Bunny."

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Don't miss Kurt Loder's reviews of "Death Race," "The Rocker" and "Hamlet 2," also new in theaters this week.