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Legally Blonde (PG-13)
MGM

Based on all the media-hewn backslapping over Reese Witherspoon's first shot at a leading lady role, you'd think Legally Blonde was a modern Billy Wilder comedy with the latest rendition of Marilyn Monroe in front of the camera. Instead, this weak and predictable comedy by debut feature director Robert Luketic is a poorly lit attempt at dredging humor from a sterile and flat script.

While Witherspoon makes an attractive ditzy blonde with enough book smarts to overcompensate for her character's fashion victim obsessions, her talents are dissipated in a movie that chases its own tail. Following her cruelly good performances in movies like Freeway and Election, Legally Blonde is a career misstep for a talented actress capable of creating much more complex characters.

Elle Woods (Witherspoon) is as close to being a "valley girl" as any female could get without affecting that most annoying speech pattern popularized in Encino Valley, California in the early '80s. She's a typically cheesy southern California sorority sister dating a rich-dude heartthrob named Warner (Mathew Davis) with visions of marriage dancing inside her little naturally blonde head. But just when Elle thinks Warner is going to pop the question, he drops the bomb that she's not serious enough to share in his political plans to become a senator by the time he's 30.

With the impetus of being dumped by her dream boy, Elle decides to follow Warner to Harvard Law School and prove her worthiness to win him back. After a series of unfunny scholastic victories, Elle gets accepted into Harvard and starts attending classes opposite Warner and his new brunette girlfriend Vivian (Selma Blair). It isn't long before Elle realizes she has to ditch her pink heart-shaped notepad and fuzzy pen for a power book laptop to outshine her studious peers.

Between trips to her overweight manicurist, Elle continues to look great, if trying way too hard, in hot pink while coming up with smart answers in class. Her attention to detail in one class wins Elle a coveted intern spot at her professor's law firm, working on a big murder trial. Naturally it's Elle's body that her professor is really after, giving Elle yet another blonde stereotype to rise above.

The heavily clichd premise that 'you can't judge a book by its cover' is Legally Blonde's white flag. The problem with Elle's character is that she's so materially agenda driven that you suspect she'd have no life if she weren't forcing people to categorize her personality so she could surprise them even more. So what if she's a smart blonde, able to win legal cases and shock everyone around her as if they were a star-struck audience to her dominant charms? She's still a plastic doll character incapable of inner discovery.

That's not to say that any such character depth is necessary or even warranted in a light-hearted comedy, but because the movie's gags and dialogue are so tedious there isn't much else to ponder except Witherspoon's knee-jerk characterization.

There are quite a few scenes in Legally Blonde that are shot so poorly, and with such awkward lighting, that you feel like you're watching a student film rather than a full budget feature with name actors. It's the kind of movie that probably felt adequate while cast and crew were busy making it even if it lacked sturdy characters and piercing dialogue. But a dog is a dog and one can only hope that Reese Witherspoon pulls in the reins on a ditzy "smart blonde" persona that, in her case, needlessly overstates the case for an actress capable of far greater challenges.

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