When Elle Woods, president of the "CULA" chapter of the Delta Nu sorority, decides to apply to Harvard Law School, her father – poolside with martini at their Bel Air mansion – tries to talk her out of it. "Law school isn’t for you," he says. "Law school is for people who are boring. And ugly. And serious."
Legally Blonde is an empowerment fantasy for an unlikely minority – pretty blond sorority girls with bubbly personalities and degrees in fashion merchandising. It shows that they’re just as able to ace law school as those boring, ugly, serious grinds who wasted their undergraduate years studying. It’s a Triumph of the Ditz, the The Paper Chase reimagined with hot pink decor and frosted lipstick.
The movie opens with a teenage boy’s overripe daydream of sorority life: a houseful of the giggliest, leggiest co-eds imaginable, all gossiping and brushing long blonde hair in what looks like Barbie’s Dream House. All this buzzing activity centers on Elle (Reese Witherspoon), the blondest of them all. She’s expecting her boyfriend Warner (Matthew Davis) to propose that night. He’s old money from the East Coast, a preppy with Senatorial aspirations who’s off to Harvard for law school in the fall. Elle’s from a different world entirely: she grew up in L.A. (across the street from Aaron Spelling), a spoiled nouveau riche girl who wants nothing more from life than to marry Warner.
Warner fails to pop the question, and Elle hits on a ridiculous scheme to win him back: she’ll enroll at Harvard to prove herself worthy of him. Her titanic self-confidence is matched by her sharp mind – she may aspire to being a Cosmo girl, but she’s no fool – and she manages in one week of cramming to bulldoze her way in.
Legally Blonde shouldn’t work at all. There’s not a single plot twist that you can’t see coming minutes before its arrival, the jokes are too broad by half, and most of the performances are undermined by Robert Luketic’s hamfisted directing. (Selma Blair, as Elle’s preppy rival for Warner, gets the worst of it: in nearly every shot in the first half of the movie she’s called on to deliver the same prissy, disgusted expression. She’s a fine actor – she has a touching scene late in the film with Witherspoon that’s all awkward hesitations and smoldering jealousy – shackled to a single-minded idea of how to play a type.)
Yet for all this, Legally Blonde is (for its first half, at least) a goofy, giddily entertaining film. This is due entirely to Reese Witherspoon, who’s made a specialty of adding depth to roles that skirt parody. Her Tracy Flick (in the brilliant Election) is one of the best comic performances in recent years, and she provided all of Pleasantville‘s best moments.
In those films, Witherspoon invested her cartoon roles with humanity. Here she instead maintains a distance from the cartoon, commenting on the story through her performance. It’s an odd highwire act, just enough removed from the action to intensify the humor. Elle is conceived as a joke (imagine Alicia Silverstone’s Cher from Clueless after four years of sorority parties), a girly girl in pink who, for all her brains, is genuinely bewildered when her vivacity and good intentions fail to impress her professors. Witherspoon gently sends Elle up, simultaneously inhabiting the character and teasing her. She’s in on the joke, and she invites us in as well.
The film has such an infectious, skipping rhythm for its first half that the occasional misfired joke or overwrought performance breezes by unnoticed. Eventually, though, the plot kicks in, and the film turns into a labored courtroom farce about a millionaire aerobics instructor accused of murder. It’s sitcom material (Luke Wilson is stuck with a thudding line straight out of Scooby Doo), and it stops the film dead in its tracks. Witherspoon survives, but just barely: she’s so inventive that she pulls laughs from even the lamest lines. As it lurches to its close, Legally Blonde makes her demonstrate this ability all too often.