[Screen It]

(2001) (Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson) (PG-13)

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Comedy: Hoping to win back her reputation-conscious boyfriend who's dumped her because of her golden locks, an otherwise happy go lucky blonde gets accepted into the same law school he's attending and must then deal with others' preconceived notions about her that are based on her looks.
Elle Woods (REESE WITHERSPOON) has led the good life. Not only is she a natural blonde coming from a wealthy family, but she's also an honor student and the president of her sorority, Delta Nu, was homecoming queen at CULA, and has two great friends in sorority sisters Margot (JESSICA CAUFFIEL) and Serena (ALANNA UBACH).

Then there's her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (MATTHEW DAVIS), over whom all of the other girls swoon and wish could be theirs. Elle and her friends believe he's about to propose to her over a fancy dinner, but to her shock he decides to dump her for being too blonde and not serious or smart enough for his political future that's to begin by him attending Harvard Law School.

Desperate to win him back, Elle decides to enroll there as well - despite her degree being in Fashion Merchandising - and manages to study hard enough and use her perkiness and sexuality to be granted admission. Arriving in Massachusetts from California, Elle sticks out like a sore thumb - not only because of her hair but also her bubbly personality and flamboyant attire as well - and tries to act surprised when she bumps into Warner.

She soon finds that her plan will not be as easy as first thought. Her first instructor, Professor Stromwell (HOLLAND TAYLOR), puts her in her place for not being prepared for class and it turns out that Warner is now seeing Vivian Kensington (SELMA BLAIR), another law student he previously dated in prep school who now seems determined to be a constant thorn in Elle's side.

All is not lost, however, as she finds a kindred spirit in local manicurist Paulette (JENNIFER COOLIDGE), and gets helpful advice from Emmett (LUKE WILSON), who's a legal assistant to Professor Callahan (VICTOR GARBER), an instructor who's also a practicing attorney looking for promising students to fill his internship program.

When Warner insults Elle's potential one more time, she decides to prove him wrong and sets out to nab one of those spots. As she and other law school students such as Enid (MERDITH SCOTT LYNN) and David (OZ PERKINS) vie for the internships, Elle eventually finds herself assisting Callahan on a murder case where their client, Brooke Taylor Windham (ALI LARTER), a former Delta Nu, has been charged with shooting her wealthy and much older husband.

As the case begins and involves witnesses such as the deceased's adult daughter, Chutney (LINDA CARDELLINI), her mother, Mrs. Windham Vandermark (RAQUEL WELCH), the deceased's ex-wife, and Enrique (GREG SERANO), the pool boy, Elle sets out to help her sorority sister and prove that blondes can have fun and make something of themselves all at the same time.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
One of the early morals that kids learn is "Don't judge a book by its cover." I can't attest to who first said that or whether it was ever really intended for discussing the selection of novels and other literary works by their covers or illustrated jackets. Of course, it's obviously intended as a bit of friendly and wise advice about not passing judgment on someone by their looks alone, especially in regards to certain stereotypical physical attributes.

Although all types of people are subject to such typing - such as those of diminutive stature - women with fair or flaxen locks - favorably and negatively referred to as "blondes" - are often the recipients of most such treatment. We've heard that "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and that "blondes have more fun," but at the same time there's the connotation of bubbly and/or ditzy airheads, not to mention all of the "dumb blonde" jokes that are repeatedly passed on by both kids and adults.

Considering much of Hollywood's view and treatment of women in films in general over the decades, it's not surprising that such stereotypes have been and continue to be perpetuated by various movies that use such characters as attractive set dressings and/or as fodder for such humor.

Thus, it's always fun and often refreshing to see movies or characters that turn such stereotypes on their head, but don't do so in a political or preachy fashion. "Legally Blonde" is one such film featuring one such character, although the fair-haired protagonist in it both plays with and against such typing. If you can imagine Alicia Silverstone's high school character in "Clueless" graduating and attending law school only to find herself faced with certain plot elements lifted from "My Cousin Vinny" and any other "small time, unorthodox lawyer saves the day via their innate knowledge" films, then you pretty have this extremely lightweight but generally amusing and cute film.

As directed by Robert Luketic (who's making his feature film debut) and written by screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith - the latter of whom are obviously hoping to have lighting strike twice after their well received and witty debut effort, "10 Things I Hate About You" - the film starts off with a fun bang.

The bubbly and vivacious protagonist - who's led a charmed and privileged existence so far - finds her life turned upside down when her boyfriend dumps her, not because she's ugly or he's found someone else, but because in his eyes she's too much of a stereotypical blonde who could ruin his political future. She's naturally devastated and thus has the necessary motivation to try to win him back and later prove him wrong about his stereotypical beliefs about women who look and act like her.

While that premise opens the floodgates of comedic potential and eventual, humorous comeuppance, as she must prove she's not a dumb blonde to succeed in both endeavors, the filmmakers don't mine the material as thoroughly or deeply as one might hope or expect.

Something of a fish out of water type story, the filmmakers initially have the character delightfully oblivious to her effect - in appearance, behavior and attire -- on others in the otherwise staid setting. This, of course, is a reality that only exists in the movies, where characters behave in what's generally unrealistic or at least exaggerated fashion all in the name of comedy and eliciting laughs.

Some of that works here and some doesn't, although one's view of that will depend on their tolerance for such material. Yet, few will probably argue with the observation that the film loses a great deal of its comedic punch as it gets dumber and more predictable once the third act court case comes along and derails what up to that point had been a moderately enjoyable picture. It also doesn't help that one of the bigger intended gags - having Elle show up a party in a Playboy bunny type outfit only to learn that it's not a costume party - was already done in "Bridget Jones's Diary."

Although the attempt is there, the screenwriters' work also doesn't contain as many fun and/or contemporary witticisms and slang as did "Clueless" which was part of what made that 1995 comedy so much fun. The rest was the dead-on performance by Alicia Silverstone in the lead role and like her, Reese Witherspoon delivers a terrific satirical performance here that makes this film and its weak script bearable.

Beyond sporting the correct colored locks, the young actress - hot off films such as "Election" and "Cruel Intentions" - perfectly plays the part of the intelligent, but pampered and occasionally ditzy young woman who's initially unaware of how others view her. While it's unfortunate that the filmmakers occasionally make her do and say some dumb things hoping to generate some laughs (particularly late in the game), Witherspoon emerges mostly unscathed and is the best thing the film has to offer.

Supporting performances from the likes of Jennifer Coolidge ("Down to Earth," "American Pie") as an insecure manicurist; Matthew Davis ("Tigerland," "Urban Legends: Final Cut") playing the self-centered boyfriend who dumps Elle; Luke Wilson ("Charlie's Angels," "My Dog Skip") in the role of her new law school friend; and Ali Larter ("The House on Haunted Hill," "Varsity Blues") as the woman on trial for murdering her husband are okay, but generally flat and uninspired.

Victor Garber ("Titanic," "The First Wives Club") as the professor who turns out to be a lech and Selma Blair ("Cruel Intentions," TV's "Zoe") as Elle's constant thorn in her side fare a bit worse simply because their characters suddenly reverse in their motivational qualities, which turn out to be several developments that simply don't work.

Overall, the film will probably play fairly well to less demanding viewers who like lighthearted and sugarcoated comedies where reality is thrown out the window in favor of broad humor and happy endings. While Witherspoon's fun performance carries much of the film and certainly makes it relatively easy to watch, the weak script and its lack of enough funny moments to sustain a comedy such as this ultimately means that this film might not fair well in it cinematic day in court. Accordingly, "Legally Blonde" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed July 9, 2001 / Posted July 13. 2001

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