Legally Blonde (2001)

Directed by Robert Luketic; Written by Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith

Legally Blonde is a film written by two women, based on a novel written by a woman, and directed by a man. It’s a film about an intelligent young woman who overcomes prejudice, beats men at their own game, lifts up other women, and upsets the applecart so she can fulfill her deepest ambition: to get married. 

It’s a movie about a person taking a sledgehammer to the established order. It’s funny. It’s also asinine. It’s progressive. It’s also reductive. It’s prescient. It’s also of its time – sometimes even crushingly so. 

Legally Blonde is full of idiosyncrasies and to watch it is something akin to eating a jelly donut that’s somehow got chunks of beef, marshmallow, and celery in there, making every bite a surprise and the entire experience a disorienting one, albeit entertaining. Because what else can you say about a film that has likable characters, solid central performances and the easy-breezy vibes of early 2000s comedy?      

Reese Witherspoon is iconic as Elle Woods. California blonde, sorority queen, material gurl, and cruising towards trophy wife as she’s all but assured her generic white boy boyfriend with political aspirations (of course) is immently going to ask her to marry him. Her beau, however, has different plans, and in an oily exchange he lets her know that while college has been a barrel of laughs, his future aspirations require a different kind of woman on his arm. A topless Porsche is a lot of fun to go fast in, but you can’t leave it parked outside the governor’s mansion. 

So he heads to Harvard Law School, and leaves her heartbroken, at least for a little while, until the obvious solution appears to her: get into Harvard Law School, prove she’s the “type” of woman Alf Lauren wants, and win him back. From then on, Elle must overcome all kinds of prejudices to break into the boy’s club and stay there, as college counselors, admission officers, dusty profs and high-priced lawyers all second-guess every sentence that leaves her lips. In the process, she realizes there’s more to her than whoever’s wife she’ll be… or is there?  

Elle’s struggles read like a feminist manifesto, but it’s written on the back of a Barbie, and while Legally Blonde handles #MeToo, unjust practices by higher learning institutions, and misogyny with apparent ease (and decades before those topics caught traction) its overall dramatic execution is vapid and perpetuates a lot of similar stereotypes. It’s like watching someone you disagree with vehemently make good points. 

No film’s quality (or lack thereof) was ever assured by political outlook, or the “importance” of its message. Movies with bad politics can still be good movies, just as bad movies can have good politics. Legally Blonde is the rare movie that accomplishes both. 

There’s a lot more to Legally Blonde than whatever you make of its messages though. Luke Wilson is benignly charming as teaching assistant/lawyer Emmett and Selma Blair has an enviable stink face as Vivian, the dark-haired nemesis of Elle. Wilson’s chilled and affable energy calms the waters between the two leading women and his chemistry with Witherspoon is hard to deny. Witherspoon remains the star though, the commitment to the bit of Elle and subsequent wattage of her performance is blinding and one for the ages.

Jennifer Coolidge rounds out a cast of comedic overachievers that ensure no scene in Legally Blonde is dull, making for a comfortable ride throughout. Add to that the immaculate millennium vibes and you have a snapshot of a time and place that deserves its place in posterity, if only for the Rorschach inkblot it will present to future generations. 

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