The Blonde Anti-Defamation League has found its standard bearer in “Legally Blonde,” a comedy that argues that towheads not only have more fun but can be just as smart as anyone else if they feel like it. This style-conscious romp with one or two ideas in its well-manicured head gets a major boost from Reese Witherspoon’s dazzling star turn as an L.A. Barbie who, for the wrong reasons, sets out to conquer Harvard Law School. But the mildly engaging silliness of its premise is never transformed into something more substantial, and the attempt at a fine-tuned “Clueless”-like tone is only sputteringly achieved. Still, the imagination-catching premise and inevitable raves for the leading lady should put this somewhere in the middle of summer B.O. performers.
Beaming star wattage out of every pore, not to mention her hair, Witherspoon once again proves herself a comedienne worthy of comparison to such golden era greats as Carole Lombard and Ginger Rogers. Seemingly at the center of every frame of the picture, the actress possesses an effervescence that floods everyone and everything in its proximity and here dignifies and elevates material that proves more appealing conceptually than it generally manages to be in the playing. Like her character, who will let nothing, least of all her own limitations, stand in her way, Witherspoon isn’t about to let spotty dialogue and some directorial clumsiness prevent her from showing what she’s made of.
Perfectly groomed, color coordinated to the max in varying shades of pink, and usually seen in the company of her Chihuahua, Witherspoon’s Elle Woods rules the sorority roost on the CULA campus; she may be a ditz, but no one can say that this knockout — who’s proud to mention that she grew up across the street from Aaron Spelling’s house — isn’t happy or hasn’t made the most of her life thus far.
Grad school definitely isn’t in the cards for this fashion merchandising major, but her expectation of becoming the bejeweled wife of preppie b.f. Warner (Matthew Davis) are dashed when the political aspirant breaks up with her. “If I’m going to be a senator, I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn,” he explains to the flabbergasted Elle. After a good sulk, Elle decides that the only way to win Warner back is to prove herself worthy by getting into Harvard Law herself and following him there in the fall.
Acing her exams and benefiting from the prospect of the diversity she will inject into the refined atmosphere of Cambridge, Elle arrives in her Porsche followed by a moving van and immediately becomes the unwitting clown in a class full of serious, snooty and often pretentious future American elite. Dressed to the nines and armed with a pink fur-covered cell phone, she’s ridiculed by her imposing professors, but this is nothing compared to her humiliation upon learning that Warner has gotten back together with a former steady, Vivian (Selma Blair), a nose-in-the-air blue-blood who cruelly misinforms Elle that an upcoming class bash is a costume party; Elle shows up in a Playboy bunny outfit.
Finding herself a social outcast for the first time in her life, Elle just about throws in the towel, but shortly decides to get serious instead. She begins turning the corner in class, befriends a lower-class manicurist (Jennifer Coolidge) whom she tries to help with her love life, and is surprisingly picked by one of her teachers, Professor Callahan (Victor Garber), to become part of the team of interns on a high-profile murder case.
Since the discovery and trial process is obviously designed to provide the platform for Elle to transform herself from bimbo to prospective professional, the picture necessarily becomes more sober-sided in the final act. But the means by which Elle triumphs remain entirely tied to her SoCal preoccupation with looks and fashion, and are therefore far too coincidental and flimsy to prove anything about her real abilities. A little postscript pushes things even further into fairy tale absurdity, although it must be acknowledged that everything that Elle does and accomplishes remains entirely in character; this girl will not be denied.
Based on a book by Amanda Brown, script by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith (“10 Things I Hate About You”) is nicely structured and populated by some good characters, but could have used a little dialogue polish to elevate the proceedings to a higher comic realm. First-time director Robert Luketic, an Aussie who has made shorts that have attracted prizes and notice on the fest circuit, emphasizes the obvious more often than not, which similarly has the effect of dumbing down the humor from what it might have been.
However, Luketic knew he had a thoroughbred he could count on to bring his film successfully to the finish line and he’s given her free rein. Witherspoon, in turn, has taken full advantage of it; she’s wonderful and winning as a young lady who has one life all figured out for herself, then is fully capable of meeting the challenge of succeeding in a new one. At this point, Witherspoon is one of a very small number of screen actors one wants to see in anything she does.
Davis as the status-conscious Warner and Luke Wilson as an older law student who is one of Elle’s few allies both look good but do little else. But Blair, who appeared with Witherspoon in “Cruel Intentions,” blossoms nicely from rich bitch to Elle’s admiring friend, and Garber and Holland Taylor have some strong moments as law school profs.
Deficient in actual Harvard atmosphere, pic otherwise boasts decent production values, particularly in the area of Elle’s all-important wardrobe, which has been tended to with loving attention by costume designer Sophie de Rakoff Carbonell.