The mousy, cherubic looks of Reese Witherspoon forever condemn her to being labeled "cute." In Hollywood, that phrase carries with it as much baggage as possibility.
But Witherspoon, a terrific actress, has parlayed her cutesiness into a whole new realm of opportunities. In the black comedy, "Election," she portrayed an overachiever running for student body president whose perpetual perkiness masked the ruthless ambition in her heart. In the even blacker comedy, "Freeway," her character's innocent demeanor made her the favored target of a serial killer, until she mercilessly turned the tables on him.
In the flaxen comedy, "Legally Blonde," Witherspoon again skillfully plays against her looks. And, as the movie repeatedly points out, that's hard to do when you're blonde.
Witherspoon portrays Elle, a popular sorority president who revels in her fashionable California lifestyle. She's never had to think too much despite maintaining a 4.0 grade point average at her Golden State college because she's always had rich boyfriends (along with daddy's money) to do the thinking for her.
When her Harvard Law School-bound sweetheart Warner dumps her because he wants to "get serious" with his life ("I need to marry a Jackie not a Marilyn," he explains.), Elle is initially crushed. Then the blonde hatches a scheme to get into Harvard so that she can win back Warner by showing him how serious she is.
Despite some clunkiness in the first act her sorority pals are simply too dumb and shallow to be believable these scenes do effectively establish Elle's vapid but resourceful personality. "Legally Blonde" really starts to liven up once Elle heads east to get her law degree. The geeks, snobs and feminists who comprise her classmates dub her Malibu Barbie, while her professors can't help but notice she is the only one in class who isn't taking notes on a computer laptop, instead preferring a pink, heart-shaped flip pad.
The script (based on a novel by Amanda Brown) makes two choices that are crucial to sustaining momentum with such a potentially one-joke premise. First, it keeps the enemies shifting. A lesser comedy would have spelled out who the friends and villains were from the beginning and stuck to it like a cartoon episode. But here, Elle's rivals (from Warner's new snooty girlfriend, played by Selma Blair, to the condescending Harvard professors) keep switching sides as she reveals to them her inner intelligence or as misunderstandings and revelations turn allies into foes.
Second, the script introduces a murder trial. Elle and three of her fellow students land a job as interns with a law professor who is representing a high-profile client in a homicide case. This puts Elle in the position of helping defend an old sorority sister (Ali Larter, "Final Destination") whose own blondeness may have set her up to be convicted. While the legal ramifications may be dubious (how many on-the-stand confessions happen in real life?), the movie desperately needs this "My Cousin Vinny"-meets-"A Few Good Men" element to add a little color to the proceedings.
Unfortunately, this doesn't quite forgive the requisite Hollywood crappiness that keeps the film from elevating above its premise. There's an out-of-place dance montage set to Elle's seduction advice of "bend and snap" (don't ask) that goes on longer than a Jay Leno monologue. And please, the audience doesn't have to know what eventually happens to these characters through little one-sentence subtitles as the credits role. The number of movies where this isn't an extraneous nuisance can be counted on one hand ("Animal House" comes to mind), and here these notes add nothing but pabulum to an already mawkish ending.
Australian director Robert Luketic makes his feature debut with "Legally Blonde," and for the most part he knows when to let his actors take over. Not surprisingly, Witherspoon is always compelling as the lead, and the weight of the film's uneven material rests on her shoulders. No matter how driven Elle becomes, Witherspoon imparts a certain vulnerability that humanizes her.
Luketic also coaxes fine work from Jennifer Coolidge ("Best in Show," "American Pie") who always brings a bizarre quality to the bimbos she plays. This time she is a trashy manicurist who Elle befriends, helping her win the attention of a slick Fed Ex delivery guy.
Like its lead actress, "Legally Blonde" falls into the tenuous category of cute. If only the movie itself could have maintained the same underlying depth that Witherspoon brings to all her roles.