Legally Blonde (2001)

Directed by Robert Luketic

This movie is like its main character. The look misleads you into underestimating it. It seems to be an exercise in gloss. “Seems” is a good word for it because that is really what the movie is about: seeming.

Legally Blonde takes a standard cultural trope — the dumb blonde — and turns it inside out. It’s a well established convention of comedy and that is why it works. It even works outside of comedy, such as in a movie like Forrest Gump. The dumb guy or gal turns out to be smarter than everyone.

It’s a variation  of the underdog story.

The blonde-as-airhead notion is so well established culturally, there are even standardized jokes — by the thousands. (If a blonde and a brunette fell off a building, who would hit the ground first?

(The brunette because the blonde would have to stop to ask for directions.)

Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) attending Harvard Law School.

Reese Witherspoon plays Elle Woods, the blonde of Legally Blonde, and her performance is note perfect. It’s not just based on the cliche of the dumb blonde, it is also based (visually) on Barbie. (There is even an offhand comment by one character to that effect.)

Elle has a problem and it is that she is in love (she believes) with a jerk, Warner (Mathew David). Her larger problem, however, is that she and her friends are in love with the idea of weddings and their rituals and accoutrements.

As often happens, she hasn’t thought much about marriage and what that means.

Warner dumps Elle and suddenly she is forced to start looking at herself and her life, something her easy life has allowed her to avoid. Once she does, it turns out the dumb blonde isn’t so dumb.

Elle (middle) and her friends: Serena (Alanna Ubach) and Margot (Jessica Cauffiel).

Although it was often referred to as a “girl-empowerment” movie when it came out, that isn’t really what the movie is, except as a secondary result. It’s about, “Don’t be fooled by appearances” and the power of an individual that believes in him or herself.

In that sense, this is a message film but it’s smart enough not to give that aspect much rein. The movie knows what it is: a confection. It’s very light and accepts that, so it never tries to be heavy handed and doesn’t linger.

And it revels in its praline quality. It even celebrates it with its colour palette, its music, its editing … all the elements. It’s a movie made with a music video look. It’s a piece of candy.

Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods.

When the movie came out I recall many reviews saying it was a nice, light comedy but completely forgettable. I would agree with that except it turns out it isn’t forgettable. It continues to linger though perhaps less for the movie itself than for Witherspoon’s wonderful performance.

Made in a different era, I could see Carole Lombard in the lead role, even Marilyn Monroe, because of the quirky, silly outer shell of the character.

With the creation of her Elle Woods, Witherspoon gave us a character that is completely memorable. There is no forgetting her.

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