Justice is Blond

But seriously, folks: Reese Witherspoon in 'Legally Blonde 2'
Courtesy of MGM

What made the end of 1950's Born Yesterday such a letdown? Did love sanitize Judy Holliday's Billie Dawn? Was her consciousness raised too much? Personally, I think the problem was the smothering presence of William Holden as the square--the journalist hired to smarten up the dumb blonde. As self-satisfied as one of those narrators in an old high school instructional film, Holden was the archetypal liberal male. He taught the girl a thing or two about the Bill of Rights and liberated her from her corrupt thug of a boyfriend, only to introduce her to her proper place in 1950s American society--as the doting wife of a boring scold like himself.

By contrast, one of the things that made 2001's Legally Blonde so great is that Reese Witherspoon actually gets funnier with liberation. Like Billie Dawn crossed with Alicia Silverstone's Cher in Clueless, Elle Woods is perky rather than brassy. (Her gasps--not her screams--make people jump.) And her plot-propelling character deficiency is "seriousness," not smarts. A fashion major from Bel Air, this blonde attends Harvard Law to impress a blueblood who has dumped her, but discovers true power only while helping others as an attorney--the joke being that her rarest skills derive from a lifetime of not giving a shit. (Her expertise in hair care wins the climactic murder case.) I loved this fairytale, which remains one of Hollywood's best rebukes to all those romantic comedies that tell you True Love Is the Answer. And I love that William Holden's old role was left to the affably helpless Luke Wilson, who hangs around mainly to cheer Elle on. You don't need to remind me that the joke would be lost if the movie were called Legally Black: Elle's blondness stands for not being taken seriously--an oppression so banal you might as well call it American citizenship.

I can imagine why Witherspoon signed on for a third installment even before the release of Legally Blonde 2: Red White & Blonde. To fans, Elle Woods was a kind of major-label debut for the actor. But it was also her most fully realized creation. Witherspoon had her indie coming out in 1996 with the Little Red Riding Hood update Freeway, playing a teen outlaw so tough and decent it made you laugh. ("You know you wouldn't like it if someone was doing that to you!" she told the Big Bad Wolf.) Since then, only 1999's Election has let Witherspoon play as broadly or deeply. And last year's laugh-free Sweet Home Alabama, in which she owned up to a rural Southern past, felt like penance for her having taken on Hollywood airs. (The best comic actor of my generation was born Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon in Louisiana.)

My bet is that of all these characters, Elle Woods remains closest to Witherspoon's heart, if only because her rise to power is so...ethical. The new movie imagines Elle as Election's Tracy Flick, but with a heart and soul. Unleashed on Billie Dawn's stomping grounds of Washington, D.C., the lawyer turns amateur lobbyist on behalf of her Chihuahua, whose "biological mother" is being held prisoner by a cosmetics company doing animal testing. This premise produces some good lines: On seeing the inside of a committee hearing, Elle cries, "It's just like on C-Span, except I'm not bored." It also promises a broader sort of liberation this time--and at a moment when the box-office electorate might actually be paying attention to C-Span.

But the sequel transforms Elle into an almost sci-fi-like force of irresistible warm fuzzies: Her charms are by now presented as virtually undeniable, so that she can convert Congress into a pack of weeping animal-rights advocates, or make Bob Newhart speak Snoop Dogg's shizzolese. (He plays a doorman who becomes Elle's Deep Throat, a turn that makes you wish he had gone for Donald Sutherland's role in JFK.) The problem with Legally Blonde 2 is that the real-life Witherspoon isn't a powerful enough force to make these things funny. And damn it, they should be funny. Is there a better foil for perkiness on God's green earth than Bob Newhart?

In fact, the movie's real square is director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld (Kissing Jessica Stein), who takes over the reins from the first film's Robert Luketic and wastes every gift he's handed. As Elle's hairdresser from the first movie (and an actor-auteur of ditziness in her own right), Jennifer Coolidge makes you laugh every time she opens her mouth. (The way she says "Holy crap!" is enough on its own to recommend the video rental.) And as the mousy congressional assistant whom Elle instinctively takes under her wing, Mr. Show's Mary Lynn Rajskub turns the "she needs a makeover" cliché into zippy physical comedy.

Still, the movie's set pieces fall completely flat. The "Million Dog March" climax follows on the supposition that Elle has the ability to mobilize her old sorority membership like a giant national cult. This is kind of embarrassing. Can't Elle inspire change by getting ordinary people behind her cause? Isn't Legally Blonde about being taken seriously by more than your friends? In the end, the movie's best joke might be an unintentional one: the idea that by holding a giant protest in the nation's capital, you can get on the cover of Newsweek.

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