A smart comedy about a smart blonde - that would be a sensation. But a dumb comedy about a smart blonde turns out to be not bad. The name of the film is Legally Blonde, and from the title on it attempts to integrate Clueless and The Paper Chase. More important, the star - and the film's redemption - is Reese Witherspoon. She imbues Bel Air princess Elle Woods with the luster of an actor who knows this could be her ticket to the big time. She's so game and winning, you can't help cheering her on.
Woods may be the sorority belle of her Southern California party college, but she's also a fashion-merchandising major with courses such as "The History of Polka Dots." Her aspiring politico boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis), wants a "serious" mate for what he sees as his presidential future. So, after he dumps her, Woods channels the brainpower she usually reserves for the four F's - fashion, fitness, food and fun - and crams for her LSATs. With a score of 179 and a video essay ("directed by a Coppola!") that exploits her beauty-queen attributes and leaves the admissions committee agog, she gets into Warner's law school class at Harvard.
What ensues is a case of a pink-clad goddess getting in touch with her gray matter and innocently besting a bunch of Ivy League smarty-pants and smarter-skirts at their own academic games. Since the whole script is written in slangy shorthand, let's just say the cards couldn't be more stacked against her, plot-wise, and for her, sympathy-wise.
Huntington is a highly polished dim bulb. He shines when he's at low beam, but he doesn't realize or care how insensitive he is when he accuses Elle of stupidity, or when he calls his country-club fiancee, Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair), "Pooh Bear" - previously his nickname for Woods - right in front of his former girlfriend. At first, even most of the genuine intellectuals, including the usual bunch of stereotyped freaks for political correctness (do-gooders, lesbians), treat her about as fairly as the pitchfork-wielding townspeople treated Frankenstein's monster. They simply have to learn that over-dressing is better than under-dressing - at least in most circumstances.
Is it merely an unfortunate coincidence that two comedies in four months (the first was Bridget Jones's Diary) feature a spurned blond heroine attending a party in a Playboy Bunny get-up? Here, the initially hideous Kensington misleads Woods into thinking it's a costume bash.
But Woods soon finds her own allies in the mysterious, savvy campus hanger-on Emmett (Luke Wilson) and her working-class manicurist (Jennifer Coolidge). With their help, and the constant on-screen support of her Chihuahua, Bruiser, she starts making friends and influencing people - including the John Houseman-like Professor Stromwell, played by Holland Taylor (of TV's The Practice), and the smarmier yet still august Professor Callahan, played by Victor Garber. Callahan selects her for a team of first-year students helping him defend a female exercise guru charged with murdering her much older husband. Luckily, Woods took the accused's workout class in L.A.
In this movie's fantasy vision of law school and Cambridge, it's inevitable that, at a crucial point, Taylor's well-tailored Professor Stromwell pops up in the same beauty shop where Woods gets her hair and nails done.
Legally Blonde supports Hollywood's cartoon democracy: It turns over-dogs into underdogs, then brings them the acceptance and recognition they crave. It's only a matter of time before even Kensington warms up to Woods and to equally perky little Bruiser, who is as snappily clothed and accessorized as his owner. (In the picture's funniest aside, Bruiser watches a continuous video loop of the old Taco Bell Chihuahua commercials.)
Director Robert Luketic tries to transform blatancy into a style, but he made one unassailable decision: Instead of casting just another babe in the role of Woods, he went with Witherspoon. She both sparks the movie and suggests a sharper, wittier one that could have pleased crowds without lapsing into utter predictability. Her humor comes from a celebration of Woods' deceptively intelligent character: From the start, when she declares that growing up near Aaron Spelling beats knowing a Vanderbilt, her conviction is both ticklish and persuasive. Later, when she leads her pal Coolidge and an entire beauty shop in a flirtation move she calls the "bend and snap," the movie momentarily becomes a musical comedy.
When it began to download a litany of "I believe in you" speeches, I realized that it could have been great if it were done in the consistent pop-satirical manner of a musical like How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying - whose lyrics to "I Believe in You" perfectly describe Witherspoon. She has "the cool clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth" and "that upturned chin and the grin of impetuous youth."
I believe in her. I believe in her.
Starring Reese Witherspoon
Directed by Robert Luketic
Released by MGM
Running time 96 minutes
Sun score: **1/2