Legally Blonde (2001)

by Cynthia Fuchs


Pink rules


hoever said orange is the new pink was seriously disturbed.” Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is acutely aware of her social environment, and in particular, the way that environment is shaped by fashion. Her unerring sense of style—and privilege—has made Elle the belle of her (fictional) Southern California college campus: not only is she pretty and popular and the president of her sorority, she’s also been a runner-up for Miss Hawaiian Tropic and an extra in a Ricky Martin video.

cover art

Legally Blonde

Director: Robert Luketic
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair, Matthew Davis, Jennifer Coolidge, Holland Taylor, Raquel Welch


All she has to do is flash her superbright smile, and it seems that everything goes Elle’s way. So you can imagine her dismay when her wealthy and supremely snotty Ken-doll beau, Warner (Matthew Davis) tells her that he’s going to law school, plans to run for political office, and thinks she’s not smart enough to be his ideal life partner. Dumped but impossibly optimistic, Elle decides that the best way to plead her own case to the boy she loves so much is to follow him to Harvard Law, as a classmate. And so, the enterprising Elle—who does have the best GPA in Delta Nu, with a major in Fashion Management—hires “a Coppola” to shoot her application video, in order to show off her best assets (for one thing, she can “recall hundreds of important details at the drop of a hat,” like, for instance, what happened last week on Days of Our Lives). Mostly, the tape displays her consummate cuteness in just-slightly loud designer outfits and spangly bikinis. Her sorority sisters are simultaneously impressed and horrified by Elle’s determination; they understand that her goal matches up with their own immediate plans (to get married to the best-connected, most ambitious, and oh yes, richest guy they can find), but all the work she’s putting into it is, well, a little too much work.

This is the basic set-up for Legally Blonde, the newest mischievously adorable girl-power movie. Like its most obvious precursors—Working Girl, Clueless, and Bring It On, not to mention the animated tv series and commercial franchise, The Powerpuff GirlsLegally Blonde makes its (lite) political points look relatively non-threatening by couching them in comic ultra-femininity. Elle is the think-pinkingest girly-girl you’ll ever see, hyper-real, unreal, and just plain fun! in the way that Cher (Alicia Silverstone) and Dionne (Stacey Dash) were in Clueless. At the same time, also like Cher and Dionne, she embodies a kind of ironic knowledge. And if you pay money to see it, Legally Blonde presumes, you get the joke: all this foofiness is really just a way to sugar-coat Elle’s steely resolve, admirable ingenuity, and fabulous moral fiber, and—more importantly—to indict the entrenched gender/class/race systems that put her in her place (on top, sort of). And besides, compared to the drab dialogue granted much tougher girl Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, Elle’s off-center smarts are at least occasionally witty, and delivered with undeniable verve.

As the most wonderful Elle, Witherspoon is (as she is invariably), irresistible, no matter how contrived the character’s situation or frivolous her get-up. And, although Legally Blonde is being touted as “Clueless meets Working Girl,” it is (thankfully) slightly less focused than either of those films on getting its pretty protagonist hooked up with a deserving, pleasant, and rumpled boyfriend (here, an older Harvard student named Emmet, played by typecast movie nice guy and Drew survivor Luke Wilson). It’s more clearly a girl power movie than the other two, with emphasis on girls in girl-drag (lots of pink and white, with feathers and stacked heels), and the boys as sideline characters, just trying to keep up.

When she first arrives on campus, of course, Elle is the underdog, though she doesn’t ever quite see it that way. Warner has a new fiancee, the snooty Vivian (Selma Blair, who sadly has little to do in the role), who repeatedly finds ways to needle Elle, though the latter remains incredibly upbeat, no matter what hurts are inflicted on her. And these are legion (as if the movie’s working overtime to make you sympathize with her). Her classmates call her “Malibu Barbie,” assuming she’s just too dumb to keep up. She does look the part: when asked for an introductory thumbnail biography, Elle announces proudly that she and Bruiser are both vegetarians and she has recently saved Cameron Diaz from buying a truly awful angora sweater. Indeed, poor Elle’s faux pas start to look endless: she stands out in the dull titanium PC laptop crowd with her tangerine Apple iBook, click-clacks around campus with her matching-outfitted Chihuahua, Bruiser (always good for an “awww” reaction shot), brings fancy Martha-Stewart-style muffins in a basket to bribe a study group to let her in, and shows up at a party wearing an inappropriate costume (in fact, she’s comes as a Playboy Bunny busting out of her bustier, unfortunately echoing a very similar scene in Bridget Jones’s Diary).

But soon, Elle figures out the system—excelling at fitting in is, afer all, her strong suit—and proceeds to out-think and out-intuit her hyper-competitive fellow students. She soon becomes the most effective intern working on a case on a professor’s case, a murder charge brought against a now wealthy young widow (who happens to be Elle’s very own her Delta Nu sister and former aerobics instructor), Brooke Taylor Windham (Ali Larter). And she does the right class-crossing thing by befriending her trailer-dwelling, spandex-wearing manicurist, Paulette (Chris Rock regular Jennifer Coolidge), whom she advises on “catching” the friendly UPS man (Bruce Thomas).

All this darn “goodness” can be annoying, of course, and the film settles for some obvious laughs and predictable plot events (the lecherous law professor, the evil rich lady played by Raquel Welch, the weaselly cabana boy, and the Perry Mason courtroom breakdown). Granted, it’s too bad and not a little obnoxious that the only way to achieve the social and emotional power that Elle does achieve is by being unspeakably and unapologetically wealthy (on this tip, Witherspoon’s own Election, as well as Kirsten Dunst’s crazy/beautiful and Bring It On offer more insightful looks at U.S. class dynamics).

To be fair, Legally Blonde makes decent lightweight fun of class privilege, most often at Elle’s expense. And the script, by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smit, the team who wrote 10 Things I Hate About You, also comes up with a mostly deft gender and age politics, helped along by first-timer Robert Luketic’s mostly light-on-its-feet direction. Nothing here is so serious that it can’t be made fun of. But that doesn’t mean that everything’s hunky-dory either (for instance, somehow the legal system comes out smelling rosy). It’s that lingering sense of unease that makes Legally Blonde seem smarter than it probably should have.

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