Witherspoon pleases but 'Legally Blonde' disappoints

by John Teti | 7/25/01 5:00am

"Legally Blonde" boasts a cute pun in the title, a cute premise and a cute star in Reese Witherspoon. With the lovability market cornered, this film tries to be something more. But in contrast to Elle Woods, the enterprising law student played by Witherspoon, "Legally Blonde" fails just when you expect it to succeed.

Despite the immediately obvious appeal of Ms. Witherspoon, I didn't expect to like her character, bracing for an amalgam of so many dumb-blonde jokes. I was happy to find that my expectations were wrong, and happier to see how quickly they were refuted.

Elle is proudly, utterly blonde. Not dumb. In one early scene, an unseemly clerk, acting as a proxy for cynics like me, takes Elle for a ditz and tries to sell her last year's fashion at this year's price.

It would have been easy enough for the supposed valley girl to declare that the dress was "SO last year," but the writers care enough to have Elle strut her intellectual prowess -- waxing academic on stitching and rayon, thus putting the clerk and skeptic movie reviewers in their place.

A straight-A fashion student and head of the Delta Nu sorority at "CULA," Elle only needs the 6-carat diamond ring from beau Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis) to complete a perfect college career.

The Harvard Law School-bound Warner has other ideas and abruptly sheds Elle like a pair of white heels after Labor Day. She's too West Coast for a future senator.

So Elle takes the next logical step: cram for the LSAT, gather up faculty recommendations, and shoot a video showcasing her "assets." Add one sex-starved Harvard admissions board, and Elle has her shot at convincing Warner to take her back.

The film's take on the East Coast college scene is dead-on. During Elle's orientation activities, the newbies split up into small groups. A comically blas student then looks on as the freshmen recite their accomplishments in a spirited show of one-upmanship. I whispered "Just like after DOC trips" to my '01 friend; he nodded with a smile.

Elle soon meets Vivian (Witherspoon's "Cruel Intentions" co-star Selma Blair), the appropriately East Coast girl who made Warner her fianc over the summer. This distresses Elle, but she'll realize -- as you have already, doubtless -- that Warner is a jerk.

Enter nice guy Emmett Richmond, played by Luke Wilson -- previously immortalized in "Rushmore" with the line "These are O.R. scrubs." Emmett has been at Harvard for a few years, so he's the perfect guidance counselor for fish-out-of-water Elle.

The consequent growing pains and clashes with classmates are predictable, but the writing is quirky enough and Witherspoon is charming enough that it's all quite pleasant.

Then, bad things start to happen.

At first it's just a misplaced line of dialogue that doesn't fit. This is followed by a minor plot point that stretches credulity, but not so much that cognitive dissonance can't bring things back into check.

The closest parallel I can draw is waking from a good dream. It begins with a vague sense that something isn't right, and the edges start to crumble. Then whole pieces begin to fall out of place. No, you didn't win the lottery. And no, you can't fly. Before long, you're back in your muggy dorm room, clutching your sweaty pillow and tossing in your itchy sheets.

Such is the horror during the last half-hour of "Legally Blonde." If I could only erase those last 30 minutes from memory, I would just recollect the darling Witherspoon gently subverting stereotypes, surrounded by a decent supporting cast doing the same.

Instead, I'm haunted by contrived plot twists, character inconsistencies and courtroom theatrics so outrageous that they would turn the stomach of a loyal Judge Judy viewer.

As the film devolves into a series of increasingly cheap (and decreasingly funny) gags, I was able to maintain some sense of denial. "The first 60 minutes were good," I reminded myself. "If the movie just ends soon, we can all calmly exit the theater, and everything will be OK."

The final crushing blow came with the on-screen epilogues -- now I knew there would be no escape. The producers of this film decided they had created a work of art so complex that the poor audience member would need help figuring out what happened.

To repair this flaw, in a closing montage, the camera focuses on each character in turn, and short epilogues are superimposed to explain that Elle ends up with the nice guy, not the jerk. My intelligence was so insulted that it emitted audible moans of despair.

So, I concede defeat, "Legally Blonde." I almost enjoyed you, but after a stunning come-from-behind effort, you've left me with that good-movie-gone-bad touch of bitterness. You win. Two stars.