-By Ethan Alter

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It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when Anna Faris went from being the Scary Movie chick to every movie buff's favorite comedienne, but I'd have to guess it was her fleeting appearance in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation that turned the tide. Playing a broad caricature of a spoiled Hollywood starlet (who was rumored to be based on Cameron Diaz), Faris gave that otherwise quiet film a jolt of comic energy every time she appeared onscreen. She continued her scene-stealing ways in the forgettable romantic comedies Just Friends (in which she mercilessly spoofed Britney Spears) and My Super Ex-Girlfriend before headlining Gregg Araki's 2007 stoner picture Smiley Face. In a perfect world, that instant pothead classic would have grossed $800 million at the box office and earned its star a well-deserved Best Actress trophy, but studio politics doomed it to an ultra-limited theatrical release before its unheralded arrival on DVD.

Nevertheless, Smiley Face only confirmed what many of us already suspected: Faris is the 21st-century reincarnation of Lucille Ball. Sure, the same thing is said about every young actress with a fizzy wit and a flair for physical comedy, but in this case the comparison actually holds up beyond that. Like Ball, Faris leaps into her roles with a total lack of vanity—just try watching the scene in Smiley Face where she almost burns her kitchen down while baking marijuana-laced cupcakes without thinking of Lucy's misadventures in the candy factory's chocolate-dipping department. More importantly, she knows how to play the fool without ever losing the audience's respect. We may laugh at her at times, but it's never malicious—we want to see her succeed, despite or, perhaps, because of her many foibles.

Faris delivers another standout comic turn in The House Bunny, a thoroughly predictable empowerment-fantasy/fish-out-of-water comedy that owes its modest success entirely to its star. She plays Shelley Darlingson, a bubbly blonde who grew up an unwanted orphan until she...uh, developed and immediately caught the attention of the opposite sex. Upon reaching adulthood, Shelley found her way from the orphanage to the Playboy Mansion and never left. It's not just the luxurious surroundings that keep her at Hugh Hefner's swinging pad—it's because she finally feels like she's part of a real family. That all changes on the morning of her 27th birthday, when she receives a note from Hef informing her that she must vacate the premises immediately due to her advanced age. (Apparently, 27 is like 59 in Bunny years.) With nowhere else to go, Shelley prepares to make her rundown car her permanent home, until help arrives in the form of a gaggle of sorority sisters. Following them back to their lavish campus spread, she learns that every sorority has a "house mother" who watches over her charges and schools them in all things feminine. Unfortunately, none of the sororities on campus is looking for a house for the losers at Zeta Alpha Zeta.

Always one to look on the bright side of life, Shelley moves right in with the dorky Zeta girls, whose pitiful numbers include “Battlestar Galactica” fan Natalie (Emma Stone), multi-pierced grunge girl Mona (Kat Dennings), expectant single mother Harmony (Katherine McPhee) and body-brace-wearing shut-in Joanne (Rumer Wilis). Although her charges initially balk at her ideas for improving their house and their appearances, they find it impossible to resist the lure of lip-gloss, push-up bras and Aztec-themed house parties and the many, many boys these things attract. Meanwhile, Shelley finds herself falling for Oliver (Colin Hanks, channeling his father circa 1984), a nice, normal guy who may be looking for someone with higher ambitions than being Playboy's Miss November centerfold.

Sorting through The House Bunny's messy gender politics would require a whole separate review or even a graduate thesis paper. Suffice it to say, while the script stresses the importance of being true to yourself and prizing personality over physical appearance, the filmmakers are unable to completely resist the siren songs of montages illustrating the joys of conspicuous consumption and slow-motion shots of hot girls in tight clothes. Luckily, Faris is on hand to distract us from the film's identity crisis, to say nothing of its wholly implausible story. Whether burning her legs while attempting to recreate Marilyn Monroe's iconic subway grate pose from The Seven Year Itch or not-so-eloquently expounding on her love for the word "manhole," she keeps the audience in stitches throughout.

Faris also finds a terrific partner in Stone, who is building her own comedienne cred with whip-smart turns in Superbad and The Rocker. Although the actresses have completely different comic energies—Faris is broad and goofy while Stone specializes in sarcastic putdowns—they intuitively understand how to play off each other to make a scene funnier. Here's a pitch to some enterprising Hollywood producer: Lock up the rights to the old Hope/Crosby Road pictures and remake them with these two women. Based on their debut outing, the comedy team of Faris & Stone deserves to go onto bigger and better things than The House Bunny.

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