Legally Blonde: Comedy, Starring Reese Witherspoon

Slick, sexy and winsome, Legally Blonde is a lot of fun. A logical follow-up to Reese Witherspoon star vehicle, Election, in which she played an obnoxiously ambitious high-schooler, the new comedy casts her as a ditzy but smart LA blonde, who goes to Harvard Law School to regain her snobbish boyfriend, and in the process regains a new identity and social consciousness.

Walking a fine line between a message movie a la Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a light feminist comedy a la Private Benjamin, and high camp a la Frank Tashlin pictures, Legally Blonde announces the splashy feature debut of the young Aussie director Robert Luketic, who fulfills the promise he had shown in his impressive short, “Titsiana Booberini.” Desperate to have a commercial success in a rather lackluster year, MGM has a box-office hit with a picture that, despite predictability and occasional sentimentality, is extremely enjoyable.

Exactly two decades ago, Goldie Hawn gave one of her most endearing performances in Howard Zieff’s Private Benjamin, in which she played a dizzy Jewish princess who, after her hubby dies in their wedding night (on the bathroom floor during sex), volunteers for military service, which turns her into a smarter, more mature woman, following years of acting as a spoiled brat and wasting her native intelligence.

Similarly, Elle Woods (Witherspoone) begins as a super-popular honor student, who’s the president of her sorority, a runner-up for Miss Hawaiian Tropic, and Miss June on the CULA campus calendar. Naturally blonde (an important distinction in this picture, which is preoccupied with the different meanings and shades of blonde), and flaunting pink as a signature color, Elle is not dumb or clueless, just a girl who’s never realized her true worth. Indeed, conditioned to define herself vis-a-vis men, Elle is anxious for her plum boyfriend, Warner (Davis), to pop the question and place the Rock (a six-karat harry Winston) on her freshly manicured finger.

Attentive and submissive over dinner at his favorite chic restaurant, Elle is shocked when Warner dumps her, claiming she’s “too blonde,” “not serious enough” for an ambitious man with a future political career. Devastated, but not utterly crushed, she decides to prove she can be the woman he desires and applies to the Ivy League school. For her admission, Elle submits a sexy video that leaves the senior, all-male committee in a voyeuristic awe, to say the least.

First reel unfolds as a reworking of the fish-out-of-water comedy, with Elle’s pink outfits, pink Prada bag, and tiny dog standing in sharp contrast to the more severe, navy blue blazer look of the world’s most famous law school. She’s further humiliated, when, upon arrival, Warner introduces her to his new girlfriend, the rich, serious-minded, all-business brunette, Vivian Kensington (Blair). Reporting to her gossipy friends, Elle says about Vivian: “She could use some mascara and some serious highlights, but she’s not completely unfortunate-looking.”

Resolving to succeed in the typical manner of American heroes, Elle soon proves herself to be one of the brightest students, posing pragmatic questions about the legal system, challenging pompous students and faculty. When prestigious professor Callahan (Garber) picks four students for the coveted intern spots at his firm, Elle is shockingly one of them. Gradually, Elle wins the respect of her peers, teachers, and friends.

Scripters Lutz and Smith introduce two subplots that enrich the predictable main line. When down, Elle frequents a beauty parlor, where she befriends and bonds with Paulette (Coolidge), an older, maladroit manicurist, who needs to be more assertive with men. Always providing a sympathetic ear, Paulette sees Elle as “a modern-day Shane who comes into town and changes everyone’s life in unexpected ways.”

There’s also welcome diversity in the secondary characters: colorful sorority girlfriends, a frothing-at-the-mouth feminist classmate named Enid (Lynn), who claims: “The English language is all about subliminal domination. Take the word semester–it’s a perfect example of this school’s discriminatory preference of semen to ovaries.”

The last segments, however, turn into a fairy tale court drama, in which Elle assists the defense in a sensational murder trial involving a famed California fitness guru, Brooke Taylor (Larter), accused of killing her rich husband. Soon Elle ends up defending the client herself in what becomes the ultimate exhibition of Girl Power, with all of her former groupies in attendance. A side benefit here is the surprising turn by the still-beautiful Raquel Welch, as the billionaire’s first wife.

Not neglecting the romantic interest, the movie has Elle shyly courted by Emmett (Wilson), who seems to be the only decent male in the entire school. A foil to Warner’s tentative snobbery, and a contrast to professor Callahan, who later reveals sleazy, self-serving intentions in hiring Elle, Emmett is the first Harvard legalite to give Elle the benefit of the doubt.

Throughout, the good-natured comedy is peppered with satirical humor, punchy one-liners, and clever digs at blondes (and brunettes), dirty-minded professors, bombastically pretentious men. Farcically debunking just about any label and stereotype, including “the dumb blonde,” Legally Blonde propagates effectively the familiar, all-American messages of determination to succeed against all odds, and never judge people by their physical appearance.

Helmer Luketic seems to be inspired by the sensibility of the late Frank Tashlin, who applied a comic strip vision to his comedies with Jerry Lewis and riske romps with Jayne Mansfield (The Girl Can’t Help It, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter), which not only displayed the actress’s ample loveliness but also an inventively exaggerated, sometimes vulgar, tone and look, with pink and purple as dominant colors. Yet, unlike Tashlin’s, Luketic’s work is camp but not cartoonish. In his highly accomplished feature debut (which doesn’t feel like first effort), he shows discretionary taste and brisk pacing in modulating his farcical comedy

MGM has been engaged all summer in an aggressive ad campaign (perfumed pink paper, nationally blonde hairday) to promote its comedy. Legally Blonde is one of the few movies whose ads not only unerringly represent the movie’s appeal, but also offer a real come-on, cashing in on Witherspoon’s captivating charisma. Hopefully, Elle Woods will not become a limiting signature role for the vastly talented Witherspoon in the way that Annie Hall, Unmarried Woman, and Private Benjamin, turned out to be for Diane Keaton, Jill Clayburgh, and Hawn, respectively. Witherspoon is not as cute or beautiful as Hawn, but her skills are far more diverse. With effective career management, savory choice of screen roles–and luck–she could become the Carole Lombard or Judy Holliday of her generation.

Legally Blonde is a rare sight this summer: A feel-good movie that’s not entirely frivolous.

Credits

Pro co: Marc Platt production
US dist: MGM
Prods: Marc Platt and Ric Kidney
Scr: Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, based on the book by Amanda Brown
Cinematographer: Anthony B. Richmond
Pro des: Melissa Stewart
Eds: Anita Brandt Burgoyne, Garth Craven
Music: Rolfe Kent

Cast

Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair, Matthew Davis, Victor Garber, Holland Taylor, Jennifer Coolidge, Ali Larter, Meredith Scott Lynn, and Raquel Welch