Friday, July 13, 2001

Blonde bombshell

Movie: Legally Blonde

Posted on Fri, Jul 13, 2001 at 4:00 AM

****
Our Rating: 4.00

A blonde and a brunette were talking about the movie "Legally Blonde." With disdain, the brunette proclaimed, "This movie is just fluff. I'd give it a D. Twice!" To which the blonde replied, "What's wrong with a movie about double-Ds?"

Well, the jokes aren't all about full push-ups and empty heads. But "Legally Blonde" yanks a lot of laughs from beauty salons, shopaholics and hair care. And, thanks to a razor-sharp performance by Reese Witherspoon, this movie produces a lot more entertainment than its paper-thin premise deserves.

Witherspoon, who made impressions in "Fear" and "Pleasantville" before her stunning turn in Election, gives her best performance to date in "Legally Blonde." It's a deceptively subtle part written by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith from Amanda Brown's novel. But without Witherspoon's dead-on take, the character of Elle Woods could have bleached out to a mousy brown. Elle wants well-heeled boyfriend Warner (Matthew Davis), but he wants a more serious woman when he goes to Harvard Law School. Undaunted and armed with a video essay of herself in a bikini, a treetop LSAT score and top marks as a fashion major, Elle persuades a diversity-minded Harvard admissions committee to admit her, too.

Immediately, her appearance and attitudes set her at odds with tweedy "Hah-vahd" and, after Warner shows up with a new fiancee, things look bleak for the former Homecoming Queen. But a young lawyer (Luke Wilson) has faith in Elle. And after her own diligence proves hourglass curves can top a bell curve, she rides her scented résumé toward the top of her class.

It's all absurd, of course. But funny, especially if you enjoy all those blonde jokes floating around the past decade or so. Those jokes walk a fine line between insult and affection, but as Witherspoon deftly plays it, we're perfectly willing to laugh at her blondeness while still rooting for her as a heroine. That's a difficult brand of comedy to play, but first-time director Robert Luketic, an Australian, hits nearly all the right notes. (When Witherspoon's briefly off-screen, things do unravel a bit.)

It'd be easy to compare "Legally Blonde" to Amy Heckerling's "Clueless," which turned into such a remarkable vehicle for the equally blonde Alicia Silverstone. "Legally Blonde" doesn't rise to that level, in part because it does not aspire to the Jane Austen social-commentary level of "Clueless." Thanks in part to Witherspoon's more consistent and less ironic performance, "Legally Blonde" carries a greater moral weight, invoking a kind of code of behavior for the cosmetically blessed. It's a world in which liposuction's a no-no, nail techs replace shrinks and sorority sisters never fail each other. Not the real world, but one which, with a rising star like Witherspoon as tour guide, is worth inspection.

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