Legally Blonde
Director: Robert Luketic. Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Victor Garber, Selma Blair, Matthew Davis, Luke Wilson, Jennifer Coolidge, Ali Larter, Raquel Welch, Holland Taylor, Alanna Ubach, Jessica Cauffiel, Oz Perkins, Bruce Thomas, Meredith Scott Lynn. Screenplay: Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith (based on the book by Amanda Brown).

Legally Blonde is, of course, a pun on "legally blind," and that's a pretty good place to start in assessing this movie, which seems to perceive its lead character as, at best, a wispy blur. Sometimes it doesn't see her at all, even though she's right there in front of us, in stiletto pumps and wide pink lapels. Watching the movie got me thinking about another old phrase, "vanity project," which usually described a play or film so obviously centered around a single performance that the star's desire for attention was the project's sole raison d'Ítre: think Billy Crystal in Mr. Saturday Night, Jodie Foster in Nell, or Bette Midler in For the Boys. Legally Blonde, if it had more presumptions to substance, might be called a "vanity project" for star Reese Witherspoon, and yet the term would have to be ironic, because the character of Elle Woods is both its reason for being and its central flaw. No one knows who she is.

One person Elle isn't, try as everyone may, is Cher Horowitz, the insouciant, deceptively sharp Valley Girl brought so vividly to life by Amy Heckerling and Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. Cher is such a distinct, well-drawn character that she almost topples the rest of Clueless, particularly toward the end, when it becomes evident that the other characters and indeed the entire scenario aren't nearly as specific or as fully alive as she is. Would that Legally Blonde had that problem. Here is how far the newer movie gets, hoping lightning will strike twice: Reese-As-Elle duplicates Cher's big saucer eyes, her insolent, lippy pout, her fondness for improbably furry phones and other way-stylized accessories. She lives in Cher's neck of the woods, as a sorority president at fictional C.U.L.A., she's all over the tropical-colored ensembles, and she's got a cute, upwardly mobile boyfriend.

Well, Cher never actually dated anyone like Warner (Matthew Davis), a smarmy graduating senior who's headed to Harvard Law. And, for that matter, Reese-as-Elle doesn't have him for long either. The movie's first sequence, which promises more fun than it ever afterward delivers, finds Elle primping for what she thinks is a wedding proposal date, only to find herself dumped and mascara-streaked, walking home from a high-powered restaurant. "Get in the car," Warner pleads, as Reese-as-Elle dejectedly drags herself home, though she proudly refuses, citing her need to separate herself, her integrity, etc. "You'll ruin your shoes," he reminds her. She hops in. It is not clear if Elle is superficial, or if we are to take her as refreshingly, unneurotically honest about taking care of things she likes, such as her shoes.

Certainly the rest of the movie doesn't clear this up. And yes, I can hear you bristling, and yes, I realize that Legally Blonde is not a movie aiming for psychological realism. I do not expect that Reese Witherspoon "inhabit" this character, or that she do sense memory exercises and know what Elle would have for breakfast, or what her greatest fear might be. However: the rest of the movie follows Reese-as-Elle to Harvard, where she is determined to prove herself worthy of Warner's love. (He has dumped her because he feels she will not be an asset in impressing voters during future political campaigns.) The fact that Elle scores triumphantly on the LSATs implies that she actually is smart, and that Warner underestimates her. The fact that she sends the Harvard admissions committee a tape of herself in a bikini, sweet-talking them from a whirlpool, suggests that her virtues lie elsewhere than her intellect, even though it's clear throughout that she's a perfectly nice girl who is certainly overqualified for the smug Warner.

Then she gets to Harvard and says nothing but stupid things. Then a professor, played by Victor Garber (who wished he'd built Rose a better ship in Titanic), sees an intellectual spark in Elle that he doesn't see in others, so maybe she's a brain after all; he hires her as an intern. Then, she spends most of the time in their board meetings talking about Delta Nu social history. Back and forth, back and forth, the movie wobbles among three perspectives about Elle: that she is way smarter than anyone thinks, and they don't notice because they are superficial; that she is not a genius but has sincerity and common sense, which are better than intelligence; and that she lacks both an IQ and a basic understanding of human behavior and communication, but that's okay, because it's just important that people be nice. In other words, she is either Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, or Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, albeit with better hair.

These are not difficult choices: any of these characterizations is fairly easy to accomplish, and once established, any number of enjoyable movies has taken off from their foundations. But Legally Blonde just can't make up its mind; in fact, it doesn't seem aware that it's obligated to have a mind about anything. First-time director Robert Luketic almost seems to enjoy tinkering with a pattern that was never broken, making all of the contrary decisions that can turn what is essentially cut-and-dried into a movie that has to scramble to stay coherent. A subplot about sexual propositioning gets thrown in with the same "Why not?" aplomb as a sudden choreographed routine led by Reese-as-Elle inside her favorite manicure salon (sort of like when all those women started dancing to Holly Hunter's lead in Living Out Loud). The one character who is nice to Elle in her New England environs, a manicurist named Paulette and played by Best in Show's riotous Jennifer Coolidge, is cruelly lit and costumed to look as shopworn as possible. By contrast, the one character to which the film allows itself to be utterly unsympathetic—Warner's new fiancée, Vivian (Selma Blair)—is incongruously allowed a change of heart, because really, it's not fair to make a character despicable just because she's brunette and wears headbands.

Vivian's benighted brunetteness is just the first of many sad gusts that air-bubble movies like Legally Blonde eventually start coasting along to their irrelevant finish. Others include: 1) People with foreign accents are funny, as are gays; 2) If you think brunette is bad, having curly brunette hair is way worse; and, 3) Just when you've learned the lesson that a girl shouldn't have to define herself against some dumb man, we are assured in an inevitable final scene that she may now safely define herself against some kind-of-nice man. Jesus, people. If John Waters had been around to direct this thing, it might have had a shot. As is, the film wants to be both John Hughes and John Waters, failing to understand that the twain shall never meet.

What saves Legally Blonde and makes it disappointingly mediocre instead of annoyingly coy and offensive is that Reese-as-Elle—whom, by the way, Reese brings off with some charm—is not required to Learn a Very Valuable Lesson, nor is Legally Blonde at any point suggestive that it is secretly a Very Important Film. It lacks that ounce of pretension, to quote Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias, that can make a real pound of manure: for negative comparison from this year alone, see the so-sure-it's-hip The Mexican or the so-sure-it's-progressive The Brothers. Legally Blonde may not know what it's doing half the time, but it at least seems reconciled to its own silliness. And it does contain one fantastic retort, which I don't mind reproducing, because then you don't have to see the movie: when Elle, through massive cyclones of legalese, wins back Paulette's dog from her estranged husband, the young lawyer chirps, "He's still scratching his head!", to which Paulette answers, "Yeah, must be a nice vacation for his balls."

Or maybe you had to be there. In any case, it pales by comparison to the best retort I heard about the movie. When Elle, victorious (surprise!), exits through the courtroom doors, and Luketic grandiosely dissolves her into a blinding field of white light, my friend Amanda sharply inquired, "Did she just die?" In one respect, at least, I hope she did, since I doubt the world is ready for Legally Blonder. Unless John Waters isn't busy. Grade: C

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Reese Witherspoon

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