Reese Witherspoon, one of the brightest, most intelligent young actresses in Hollywood, has been around ever since her feature debut at 14 in 1991's nostalgic "Man in the Moon." Solid star turns followed in 1996's "Fear," 1996's "Freeway," 1998's "Pleasantville," 1999's "Cruel Intentions," and 1999's "Election," but never before has she had an entire movie rest solely upon her shouldersuntil now.
"Legally Blonde," the directing bow of Robert Luketic, is an intentionally frothy, good-natured comedy about female empowerment and getting to show your true colors in a cynical society. At the forefront is Witherspoon, in a role that is perfectly tailor-made for her sturdy comedic talents, and she shines in every second of its entertaining, fast-paced 96 minutes.
Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon), no doubt named after the magazine, is about to graduate from college with a 4.0 GPA and a degree in fashion merchandising. She also expects to get a marriage proposal from her longtime boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis), when, instead, he dumps her due to not believing that she would make an acceptable senator's wife. Distraught over this unexpected turn of events, Elle decides to follow Warner to Harvard with her beloved Chihuahua in tow, where she will major in law and prove him wrong about just being a "dumb blonde."
This is the clever setup of "Legally Blonde," a sunny, hip confection that uses 1995's delightful "Clueless" as an indirect blueprint. The screenplay, scribed by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith (1999's "10 Things I Hate About You"), is spunky and very sweet, but the film really would sink or swim based on its leading lady.
Luckily, just the right one was chosen and Witherspoon is up for the challenge, turning Elle into a positive, well-meaning heroine for the 21st-century who proves looks are, indeed, only skin-deep. Elle may be a beautiful girl with a keen fashion sense, but the key to her appeal is that she is a genuinely good person, plain and simple. Witherspoon wins you over from the very beginning, much like Alicia Silverstone did in "Clueless," because she's cute, funny, and isn't self-involved like you may expect from the way she looks. No, Elle does things her way, and she'll be damned if she's going to change just because people think she should.
The aforementioned script is a particularly smart one, alternately satirical and down-to-earth when it needs to be. Elle's application tape into Harvard, which she got "one of the Copolla's to direct," for example, is both winning and silly, with her proving that she can successfully use proper legal jargon ("I object!," she exclaims as a passerby touches her backside), as well as hold inordinately huge amounts of information in her head by rattling off the various current storylines on the soap opera, "One Life to Live." Late in the picture, as the action turns toward a murder trial, writers Lutz and Smith hilariously incorporate the usual court matters with significant plot points concerning designer shoes and the proper way to manage a new perm.
The actors around Witherspoon fall into two categoriesthose that are nice to Elle, and those that aren't. Jennifer Coolidge (Stifler's mom in 1999's "American Pie") is notably charming in the type of part she's never played beforea shy manicurist who befriends Elle when nobody else initially does. Selma Blair (2000's "Down to You") does well as Warner's new brunette girlfriend at Harvard, at first coming off as stuck-up before feeling remorse about the way she has wronged Elle. Finally, Luke Wilson (1999's "Blue Streak") does what he can with the underwritten role of Elle's new potential love interest. Not enough time is spent developing their relationship, and it is one of the few missteps that is made throughout.
The journey that Elle takes as she sets out to reclaim her beau, only to discover that she is more than capable of standing on her own two feet, is a predictable one, as is the outcome of the climactic murder trial. Then again, "Legally Blonde" makes no false accusations about being a deep or intricately plotted motion picture. It's a lighthearted, breezy comedy that is sure to gain Reese Witherspoon the full recognition she has deserved for years. And more so than anything else, it sure is a whole lot of fun.
©2001 by Dustin Putman