COMEDY: Legally Blonde (2001)

Legally Blonde (USA, 2001)
Directed by Robert Luketic
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair, Matthew Davis

Hollywood has always had a problem with films built around positive roles for women. Long before 'chick flicks' began to dominate the landscape of romantic filmmaking in the 1980s and 1990s, female film fans hankering after a leading lady of substance were all too often served up stereotypes and conventions instead, whether the woman in question was a submissive, victimised housewife or a dominant femme fatale. There were always exceptions, particularly in the so-called 'golden age' (Now, Voyager and All About Eve being very good examples), but women have too often been given the short shrift even whenn they also received top billing.
As the click flick has become dominant and its formulas all the more ingrained, so it has become the norm for men to feel embarrassed about liking either the genre as a whole or any particular offering it produces. While not all chick flicks may be as grotesquely terrible as Just Friends or Sex and the City, it can seem tiresomely tricky to find such a film which will appease or satisfy both genders. Fortunately, both men and women can enjoy Legally Blonde with no shame whatsoever, since it is a surprisingly thoughtful and well-written piece which flatters its audience's intellect as much as pulling on its heartstrings.
An understandable response at this juncture, given that the film is 15 years old, is to say "they don't make 'em like that anymore" and attempt to dismiss any praise as mere nostalgia. That statement is a half-truth; Hollywood rarely makes pictures costing a paltry $18m anymore, and its approach to filmmaking is far more conservative now than in an era which also gave us The First Wives Club and Death Becomes Her. But the subsequent success of Bridesmaids and The Heat (whatever one's views on their actual quality) shows that Hollywood still takes at least some kind of interest in female-led productions. If nothing else, the fact that this film spawned a sequel, a straight-to-video spin-off and a Broadway musical is evidence that they had something good on their hands.
The first and biggest strength of Legally Blonde is its screenplay. Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith had worked together on 10 Things I Hate About You (a reasonable attempt to update Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew) and would later go on to adapt Ella Enchanted. While their later work outside of adaptations has been declining in quality (The House Bunny and The Ugly Truth being equally embarrassing), on this occasion they get it spot on, putting a female character at the forefront and writing her like a believable, three-dimensional human being. Even before we warm to Reese Witherspoon in what was arguably a career-making role, we want the best for Elle and are interested in what happens to her.
The main reason the screenplay works, compared to many other films of its kind, is that it doesn't fall into the trap of defining its female character by her relationship to a man. Elle may start the film just wanting to chase after her oh-so-clever boyfriend, but she eventually grows out of that after that particular bubble has been burst. What we end up with is an independent, intelligent, entirely credible woman who manages to get where she is without compromising her femininity or completely losing herself in a male-dominated workplace. Elle is a fantastic example of women defying the pigeonholes which society has created for them, and doing so in a manner which is neither preachy nor vindictive.
Within this character dynamic, there is an interesting (albeit brief) class analysis which runs alongside the discussion of gender. In my review of National Lampoon's Animal House, I spoke about the film's counter-cultural subtext, with the boringly pro-establishment adult characters coming up against the free-thinking rebellion epitomised by Bluto and his Delta cohorts. Legally Blonde attempts the same kind of conflict between Elle's easygoing, borderline vapid Southern California lifestyle and the uptight snootiness of East Coast academia. Selma Blair - who is dealt a far better hand here than in Cruel Intentions - is very good at epitomising the absurdly rigid (and frigid) attitudes of that particular social and academic caste.
But rather than simply confine itself to the ins and outs of academia, Legally Blonde elects to step outside of this bubble and apply the same thesis to less bookish characters. It's very difficult to look at Jennifer Coolidge without expecting an iritatingly larger-than-life performance, along the lines of her work on American Pie, Austenland or 2 Broke Girls. But here she's largely well-behaved, being given a character who, like our leading lady, has been written off and shamed by all the men to whom she previously gave power or prominence. Her "bend and snap" exploits is one of the comedic highlights of the film; it's not just good slapstick, it's slapstick with a hint of pathos behind it.
While the writing talents are generally reliable, the choice of director for Legally Blonde was more a stroke of luck. Robert Luketic hasn't exactly covered himself in glory after this film, going on to film Win a Date with Tod Hamilton!, Monster-in-Law and The Ugly Truth - but here he manages to provide a steady hand which allows the script to speak for itself. He doesn't depart too far from the standard visual lexicon of chick flicks; his cinematographer, Anthony B. Richmond, also lensed Just Friends and does very little that is adventurous. But he does crucially avoid milking the emotional moments for the sake of schmaltz, allowing Elle to come across as surprisingly formidable in her stronger moments without becoming mawkish when she's down.
The combination of very good writing and surprisingly solid direction means that many of the developments in Legally Blonde play out much more naturally than they otherwise might. The relevation about Salvatore's sexuality in the courtroom would be handled by the musical in a way that was entertainingly camp, with the accompanying song 'There! Right There!' being the highlight of the soundtrack. Here, we still have to contend with a certain amount of gay stereotyping (we'll get to that), but the overall reveal is more understated and satisfying.
Courtroom dramas have always had an air of the ridiculous about them, with filmmakers attempting to generate tension and intrigue from what it usually a fairly mundane and solemn set of proceedings. This is not a modern Hollywood trend; long before the histrionics of A Few Good Men, we had to put up with the boat-smashing melodrama in A Place in the Sun or the unusual camera angles of The Paradine Case. The final case scene may be a touch over-the-top, with Luketic spending a lot more time shooting gasping women than he needs to. But Witherspoon's believably nervous disposition keeps this more awkwardly natural than we have come to expect.
Outside of Witherspoon, Blair and Coolidge, the cast of Legally Blonde is rounded out by a number of solid male performances. Luke Wilson, who is more talented and underrated than his brother Owen, is a very good balance for Witherspoon, turning in a performance as deft as his work with Wes Anderson on The Royal Tenenbaums. Matthew Davis does a decent job as Elle's former boyfriend, resisting the urge to play Warner Huntington III as nothing more than a lip-curling villain. And Victor Garber, who also appeared in The First Wives Club, is very good as the long-suffering and ultimately predatory Professor Carnahan.
For all its obvious assets, there are a couple of flaws with Legally Blonde which prevent it from being a complete home run. For all its skill with character development, the story is still rather predictable; while Elle's narrative arc is inspiring, it's also pretty easy to see it coming. It's tempting to excuse this by seeing the film as some kind of fairy tale, with Elle as a somewhat subverted Ugly Duckling; the line goes that it's following the course of a well-known story and does it justice. But it's still frustrating for those of us trying to hold this film up as an example of how romantic films don't have be as predictable as days of the week.
The other issue with Legally Blonde is its attitude towards its gay characters. It's not homophobic in the slightest, but it has the same problem as a lot of 1990s comedies in the way that its gay characters are portrayed. In an effort to demonstrate that being gay was acceptable, shows like South Park, The Simpsons and Will and Grace would often have gay characters who would constantly talk about their sexuality and flaunt it in a way that many gay people typically would not. The film isn't as forward in this regard as, say, the remake of The Haunting [shudders], but it does look dated compared to more subtle offerings from the same period.
Legally Blonde is a funny, warm and uplifting romantic comedy which will manage to satisfy both women and men. Its inspirational message will appeal to those crying out for substance in this frothiest of genres, and it is assembled with enough technical professionalism and care to lift it above many of the cheaper knock-offs that would follow it. It isn't perfect, settling for conventional narrative choices all too often, but even ardent opponents of the rom-com genre will have a hard time resisting it.


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