Not since Clueless has a movie gone so far to try and reverse a negative stereotype. Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is a prototypical ditzy blonde, well-versed in the art of good grooming and casual California exhibitionism, but hopelessly out of her depth when it comes to anything intellectually challenging. Or so you might think.
Legally Blonde is all about proving those first impressions wrong. The screenwriting team of Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith (10 Things I Hate About You) — who adapted Amanda Brown’s novel — and director Robert Luketic have fashioned a sort of reverse Cinderella tale, where the princess discovers her true nature after being exiled to a gloomy world where her sunny disposition is mistaken for stupidity.
The story begins at the fictitious California University at Los Angeles where Elle is the belle of Delta Nu, a sorority where every girl appears to be impossibly beautiful and fit. (Director Luketic’s probing soft-core camerawork makes the opening sequence ideal for a teenage boy’s wet dream. Fortunately, he soon changes his focus.) Elle is preparing for her big day, when she believes her handsome, politically ambitious boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis) will be popping the question. Instead, he dumps her, explaining that he needs “a Jackie, not a Marilyn.”
Determined to be taken seriously, Elle musters her considerable energies into gaining admittance to Harvard Law School, Warner’s destination in the fall. It comes as little surprise that she makes it, using all of her considerable charms and an intelligence that heretofore had only been used to discern the wisdom contained in the pages of Cosmopolitan.
The bulk of Legally Blonde takes place at Harvard, where Elle’s none-too-subtle arrival (with her ever-present Chihuahua in tow) is heralded with “Look, it’s Malibu Barbie!” She’s soon faced with incredibly demanding professors and Warner’s fiancee, the sneering, ultra-preppy Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair). There’s also a real Prince Charming waiting in the wings. (This is a fairy tale, after all.) Lawyer Emmett Richmond (Luke Wilson) not only believes in Elle, but encourages her to use her all her assets — blonde ambition, girl power and female intuition — to help win a high-profile murder case.
Even with a solid framework and great supporting cast, it’s Reese Witherspoon who makes Legally Blonde click. Following on the heels of her astoundingly obsessive (and infinitely annoying) Tracey Flick in Election, Elle Woods shows Witherspoon’s ability to embrace contradicting qualities. Elle always functions at a high energy level, yet manages to retain a certain guileless innocence, as if Machiavelli were a designer whose clothes she’d just never wear.
This film is enjoyable fluff, as airy, sweet and pink (Elle’s signature color) as cotton candy. Yet Elle Woods is something more. Despite being raised in an environment where little is expected of her, she possesses good judgment and an inherent decency, two qualities which stand out even more than her loud wardrobe. That alone makes Legally Blonde a blast of lovely scented fresh air.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.