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Issuing a Verdict in Case of ‘Legally Blonde’

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TIMES FILM CRITIC

A high concept can be a wonderful thing. Up to a point. It can get your film sold and maybe even make it look attractive, but it can’t ensure much of anything else. Case in point, may it please the court, is “Legally Blonde.”

Starring Reese Witherspoon as a Bel-Air airhead wending her way through law school, “Legally Blonde” is basically “Clueless Goes to Harvard.” Nothing wrong with that notion, but, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’ve seen “Clueless” and this is no “Clueless.”

That’s more disappointing than it may sound, because “Legally Blonde” is guilty of squandering resources. Amusing as it goes about setting up its premise, in Witherspoon, the gifted veteran of “Election” and “Pleasantville,” it has an actress willing to throw herself completely into the part to excellent effect.

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But while “Clueless” had the use of the road-tested plot of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” “Legally Blonde” does not. Haphazardly directed by first-timer Robert Luketic and written by Karen McCullah Lutz & Kirsten Smith (who did the similarly bright but dramatically unfocused “10 Things I Hate About You”), this film can’t figure out where to go with its concept and increasingly unravels as it marches along.

Witherspoon plays Elle Woods, the way blond president of the Delta Nu sorority at a mythical Southern California university. Though we’re clued in early that she’s way smarter than her runner-up for Miss Hawaiian Tropic lifestyle might indicate, Elle’s ambitions are limited to getting married to the man of her dreams.

That would be Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis), smug as only a III can be. On the night Elle expects Warner to propose, he takes the opportunity to break up with her. He’s going to Harvard Law with the aim of being a senator by the time he’s 30, a schedule that mandates that he “marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.”

Miffed, Elle decides to go to Harvard Law as well. So what if her strong GPA comes from taking courses like “The History of Polka Dots” as a fashion merchandising major. So what if her father feels law school is exclusively for people who are “boring, ugly and serious.” Harvard Law is what it’s going to be.

Elle’s determination is at the heart of her irrepressible character. Faultlessly played by Witherspoon, Elle is all bounce all the time, so filled with positive energy that the actress reported that it was actually tiring to play the part. Elle’s bikini-clad video application so flummoxes the Harvard admission committee that it lets her in in the name of, what else, diversity.

She arrives with her scented, pink resume and her tiny Chihuahua Bruiser, determined to take notes not on a computer but a cozy heart-shaped pad. No one is amused. Not her ex Warner, not his snooty new fiancee Vivian Kensington (Selma Blair), not fierce professor Stromwell (Holland Taylor). Only the quietly handsome Emmett Richmond (Luke Wilson) can look past the light streaming off her hair and sees Elle for what she is.

All this is passably amusing, but once the film establishes Elle at Harvard, it seems at a loss as far as building on its eminently serviceable premise. It sets off in two directions, but neither one offers much in the way of satisfaction.

“Legally Blonde” first gives Elle a confidant in the form of a confidence-challenged manicurist named Paulette played by Jennifer Coolidge. Though Groundlings veteran Coolidge is invariably amusing (“Best in Show,” a key cameo in “American Pie”), Paulette is too phlegmatic for even her talents to energize.

More misguided is the subplot concerning a murder case that Elle, as an intern for the defense team headed by one of her professors (Victor Garber), gets involved with. Though comedy legal proceedings needn’t be as carefully plotted as Perry Mason, this one is so cockamamie that you can feel the interest leak out of the situation like air out of a balloon. It’s unfortunate that a film premised on the notion that first impressions are not always reliable finds itself teaching that very lesson itself.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for language and sexual references. Times guidelines: relatively 200107mild, appropriate for younger teens.

‘Legally Blonde’

Reese Witherspoon: Elle Woods

Luke Wilson: Emmett Richmond

Selma Blair: Vivian Kensington

Matthew Davis: Warner Huntington III

Victor Garber: Professor Callahan

Jennifer Coolidge: Paulette

Holland Taylor: Professor Stromwell

A Mark Platt production, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. Director Robert Luketic. Producers Marc Platt, Ric Kidney. Screenplay Karen McCullah Lutz & Kirsten Smith, based on the book by Amanda Brown. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond. Editors Anita Brandt Burgoyne, Garth Craven. Costumes Sophie de Rakoff Carbonell. Music Rolfe Kent. Production design Melissa Stewart. Art director Daniel Bradford. Set decorator Kathy Lucas. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

In general release.


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