Legally Blonde

(Robert Luketic, USA, 2001)


I am always intrigued when an ad campaign seems to deliberately fudge the matter of what a movie is, in the most basic sense, about. Promotional spots and posters for Legally Blonde told me that it was a teen movie about a dumb blonde, but precious little else.

In fact, it is an all-American fantasy of upward mobility. It is about a girl without vast social advantages who aspires to graduate from Harvard Law School. Clearly, this premise is judged to be incomprehensible, on the level of emotional response, to a local audience. Can one imagine an Australian comedy about a teen wog boy moving heaven and earth to get his law degree at Melbourne University?

Legally Blonde, a wobbly but enjoyable film, is in fact the debut feature of Australian Robert Luketic. He superimposes the quirky style we know from Muriel's Wedding (1994) and countless other local films upon a fast moving, occasionally very witty script by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith (Ten Things I Hate About You, 1999).

The perky Elle (Reese Witherspoon) is shattered when her boyfriend, Warner (Matthew Davis), dumps her and announces he is moving on to bigger things at Harvard. Determined to win him back, she puts in the hard yards of study and joins him there – much to the consternation of her fellow students.

Teen comedies about supposedly ditzy girls walk a fine line between affectionate mockery and brittle, superior sarcasm. Legally Blonde has troubles finding its tone in this regard. Like Alicia Silverstone in Clueless (1995) or Kirsten Dunst in Bring It On (2000), Elle is into the supposedly superficial things of life: shopping, low-level competitiveness, keeping up with fashions, maintaining her appearance.

But while we liked the characters in those other films from the word go, it takes longer to warm to Elle. This is partly due to the art department: Witherspoon is decked out in a relentlessly garish procession of accessorised outfits, and so is her maddening little dog. But it's also a script problem, because Elle doesn't do much, in the story's first half, to make us disagree with anybody's withering opinion of her.

This film is better in its fine-grain details than its broad strokes. A subplot involving the loveless Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge), Elle's friend in the local beauty parlour, is rather lame. At a certain point the story lurches into a courtroom intrigue that sends itself up a little too enthusiastically.

Curiously, the set-piece which most resembles Luketic's well-known short, Titsiana Booberini (1997), is the clumsiest and least satisfying gag of the whole movie. At the beauty parlour, Elle trains a line of women on the "bend and snap" gesture guaranteed to get a man's attention; the music rises, there's even a little breakdancing, but no full-blown musical number emerges. Maybe next time ...

MORE Luketic: Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!

© Adrian Martin October 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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