Anna Faris may finally be getting her due. After years of fearless and sparkling work in lowbrow spoofs and indie doodles, she’s starring in and executive producing a big Hollywood comedy, “The House Bunny.” Whether it’s worthy of her talents is yet to be seen, but it definitely heralds a new stage in her circuitous career, one in which she can start calling her own shots. If given the chance, she’s capable of out-dumbing Judy Holliday and out-ditzing Carole Lombard, or at least give them a run for their heiress money.
With the Apatow boys dominating the comedy circuit, there’s been little room for feisty female comediennes. Apatow’s art is based on absurdist riffs on macho man-children, the women serving as sullen straight gals. There are some exceptions, of course (Kathryn Hahn’s sex-starved wife in “Step Brothers,” Molly Shannon’s boozehound in “Talledega Nights”), but they simply serve to prove the rule. And that’s why Faris is such a bracing talent, with her brash physicality, slow-burn timing and endlessly expressive eyes that promise the kind of screwball pluck that David Denby is constantly mourning as lost in his New Yorker columns. While I’m much fonder of Apatow and the severely underrated Adam McKay than Denby, he’s right about the disappearance of the comic actress. Performers like Faris, Amy Adams and Isla Fisher are enormous talents, but there’s no room for female clowns when teenage males are the targeted customer.
Plucked from relative obscurity in Washington state to star in Keenan Ivory Wayans’s “Scary Movie,” Faris started her career in the raunchiest way possible. As a parody of the virginal scream queens that came before her, Faris’ Cindy Campbell was so pure that she shaved her tongue — though not the massive tuft of pubic hair beneath her electrified chastity belt — and she was funny because Faris played the insanity straight. Faris never oversells a joke, but lets it build around her until her incredulous puppy dog eyes expand to capacity and await the rapidly approaching punchline. With such comic instincts, she’s been compared to everybody from Lombard to Goldie Hawn. David Zucker, the director of the third and fourth “Scary Movies,” told Sara Corbett of the New York Times that “to do good comedy, you have to be smart, and Anna is smart. You could have an actual dumb blonde playing the dumb blonde role, but she wouldn’t have nearly the range.”
Faris was a brunette for the first two “Scary Movies,” and kept the dark hair for 2002’s indie “May,” where she plays the vamp, though a dotty one at that. Her Polly is a lesbian lothario with a thing for the title character, the mousy May (Angela Bettis), and her overeager come-ons are hilarious bits of bravado. She’s the devilish highlight in an otherwise uneven Carrie take-off.
It was with 2003’s small role in “Lost in Translation” that Faris established herself as the dumb blonde for the oughts. Stealing every scene she’s in with bubbly small talk banality, her shallow actress seems like a lot more fun than ScarJo’s morose misanthrope. The film has aged poorly, steeped in condescension towards modern Japan as well as Faris’ character Kelly. Kelly shows kooky vivacity in her few scenes on screen, pimping a power cleanse and belting out “Nobody Does it Better” as the main couple sneak on by. But watching it now, I’d much rather linger with Kelly’s screwy antics than bathe in the anomie of the rest of the film’s curdled hipsterism.
After this star-making performance… she didn’t become a star. Her small role in “Brokeback Mountain” aside, she soldiered through some middling fare in supporting roles, dishing an emasculating monologue in “Waiting…” (2005), nabbing a recurring role on “Friends” during the sitcom’s final season, and suffering through “My Super Ex-Girlfriend” (2006) as the doting third of a love triangle between Luke Wilson and Uma Thurman. It wasn’t until 2007, with Gregg Araki’s barely seen “Smiley Face,” that Faris displayed the full range of her talents. On screen for the whole film as stoner/slacker extraordinaire Jane, she manages a true comedic tour-de-force. Slouching through the film’s shaggy dog tale with slack-jawed grace, Faris hoods her eyes and slows down her delivery as she makes her way from Los Angeles to Venice, CA. There are a series of stunning sequences here, including an acting audition turned pot bust and an incoherent Marxist call to action, where every intonation is pregnant with humor as she shifts her patter from a slow murmur to a guttural shout. Every scene carries a surprise. It’s the kind of high-wire act that wouldn’t feel out of place in a screwball classic like “Twentieth Century,” only if the weed was replaced with champagne.
[Additional photos: “Scary Movie,” Dimension Films, 2000; “Smiley Face,” First Look International, 2007]