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Pretty and powerful in pink: a review of 'Legally Blonde'

April 13, 2019

Reese Witherspoon stars as law student Elle Woods in the 2001 comedy <em>Legally Blonde</em>. (Metro Goldwyn Mayer)
Reese Witherspoon stars as law student Elle Woods in the 2001 comedy Legally Blonde. (Metro Goldwyn Mayer)

I’ll watch cringey movies so you don’t have to! Email me with any recommendations.

I’ll admit to this one being a guilty pleasure.

My mother and I used to curl up on the couch with a bowl of overly-buttered popcorn and watch Reese Witherspoon strut her way in painful-looking stilettos, giggling over the movie’s occasional swear and Witherspoon’s ridiculous outfits.

“Legally Blonde” was a blockbuster hit from the early 2000s, starring a number of C-list actors outshined by Witherspoon’s bubbly personality and bright pink wardrobe. It’s a go-to for cheap laughs, with a good message about self-respect, making it difficult to dislike.

Elle Woods’ senior year at college has been nothing but frat parties, romantic dates with her boyfriend, Warner Huntington III, and mani-pedis with her sorority, Delta Nu. She’s a fashion major with clear aspirations -- the script hints at Elle’s perceptiveness from the very beginning, as she calls out a retail worker for trying to sell her a last-season dress at full price.

Elle’s perfect life, however, is thrown into chaos when her boyfriend dumps her at a fancy restaurant. Warner claims that if he’s going to become a senator by the time he’s thirty, he needs a “Jackie, not a Marilyn.” Viewers can tell from the beginning that Warner is going to be the bad guy by the way he wears sunglasses indoors and the gel dripping from his hair.

Her reaction is proportional to the callous break-up; watching sappy rom-coms and eating chocolates to drown her sorrows. But then, in a move that could be described as stalkerish, Elle decides to follow Warner to Harvard Law School.

Cue the endless studying montages.

With a 4.0 GPA and a 179 on the LSATs, Elle barely manages to be accepted into Harvard, although it probably helped that she wore a bikini in her college admittance video essay.

Law school is made out to be a “completely different world,” but with actual studying, anti-socialness and strict teachers, it seems more realistic than her sorority did.

With her barbie-doll hair style and fashion, Elle stands out among the population of “boring, ugly” Harvard students wearing shades of brown and puke green.

There is a clear us versus them mentality at this Ivy League school -- and it’s nothing so deep as race or sexuality. It’s hair color.

As a blonde, Elle feels she is “discriminated against.” She’s rejected from study groups, laughed out of class and even tricked into dressing up as a Playboy bunny for a classy “bring your own merlot” party.

Elle becomes fueled by pure spite, ready to kill them with kindness.

She’s accepted into an internship program with Professor Callahan, along with Warner and Warner’s new, frigid girlfriend, Vivian Kensington -- the “Mean Girl” of Harvard Law.

Audiences are drawn into an intriguing court case surrounding Brooke Taylor-Windham, a famous fitness instructor and a former Delta Nu. The evidence is so incriminating that everyone, including her attorney, Callahan, believes Brooke is guilty of murdering her older husband -- everyone. It doesn’t help that Brooke won’t give an alibi.

Elle takes the initiative and approaches Brooke in jail, giving her a care basket of skin products and a luffa. Brooke reveals that on the day of her husband’s murder, the fitness instructor was, in fact been getting liposuction. The reveal came fit with fake gasps and astonished looks and shameful sobs.

Elle keeps Brooke’s secret, gaining the scorn of her fellow interns -- except Vivian, surprisingly, who shyly calls Elle’s loyalty “very classy.” To be honest, I find Vivian and Elle have more chemistry than any of the other characters.

The movie begins with Elle as a classically ditzy and dumb blonde, but she evolves into a strong female role-model, with an eye for fashion and the drive to becomemore than just a pretty face. “Legally Blonde” is a twist on the “manic pixie dream girl” trope. “Manic pixie dream girl” is defined asa vivacious, quirky female character whose main purpose is to inspire a male protagonist, but Elle twists this trope on it’s head, inspiringallthose around her to become better.

The plot comes to a head as Callahan makes a pass at Elle, leaving her discouraged and distraught. The scene is awkward. So awkward. Even knowing it was coming, I still got whiplash at Callahan’s transition from a nice guy to a total, utter creep.

Reese Witherspoon takes the trophy for her emotional range. It’s in the small things: her portrayal of stress with her hands shaking rapidly, her lips open in a still disbelieving gape, the stress lines between her brows.

It also shows clear character development, how Elle goes from sloppy sobs to quiet fury as her heart is broken yet again by a man she trusted.

The conclusion comes swiftly after that, with Callahan being fired -- as he deserved -- and Elle taking his place as Brooke’s defendant. And Elle. Kicks. Butt.

It’s a truly goosebump-rising scene when Elle uses her knowledge of perm maintenance, wet t-shirt contests, and last season Prada shoes to get Brooke’s step-daughter to admit to the murder. Elle, we learn, ispowerful.

Her potential love interest, Emmett Richmond, said it best; “You know, being a blonde is a pretty powerful thing. You hold more cards than you think you do. And I personally would like to see you take that power and channel it towards the greater good.”

Although this reference to white privilege is sloppy, it’s also well-meaning, and Elledoesuse her power for good. She subverts expectations and rose above those who tried to tear her down. After winning her case, Elle walks off stage into a screen lit with sunlight, like an avenging angel.

I watched it with a friend, who thought it would be “more stupid.” She was pleasantly surprised by how heartfelt and "interesting" the plot was. It’s a charming tale -- if difficult to explain to children.

While as Elle grows into her own, there are several subplots to keep track of. Including, but not limited to; a shy, awkward, creepy-eyed boy struggling to find love; the strained relationship between Vivian and Warner; a second love interest for Elle, a supportive, handsome man eerily resembling Nicolas Cage; and a manicurist named Paulette putting her abusive ex in his place, and falling in love with a UPS guy.

The manicurist scenes are the worst to watch. Paulette, played by Jennifer Coolidge, is down on her luck. Having lost a custody battle with her ex-husband over their bulldog, Rufus, Paulette enlists the help of Elle. After spewing some legal bullcrap at Paulette’s ex, Elle successfully confuses him into giving up the dog, and Paulette reigns champion. But her biggest challenge comes next; wooing her local UPS guy with a dance move called the bend-and-snap.

Fun trivia: the bend-and-snap scene was thought up in a drunken-spur of the moment by “Legally Blonde”’s co-writer. And it shows.

Eventually, a dozen scenes later, Paulette accidentally breaks the UPS guy’s nose utilizing the bend-and-snap method, and they lived happily ever-after.

“Legally Blonde” is wrought with sexual references and frequent stereotyping. I wouldn’t recommend watching it with kids, like my mom did with me, unless youreallywant to explain what a lap dance is to a eight year old.

Everything about the movie is delightfully early 2000s, from the props and costumes -- everything Elle owns is either pink or some garish pattern -- to the lack-luster cinematography. Repeating “he has a package” with the camera right at the UPS guy’s groin height clearly showed where their priorities were.

The female cast dominate this film; Reese Witherspoon as Elle, Selma Blair as Vivian, Ali Larter as Brooke, Holland Taylor as the stern, appropriately terrifying Professor Stromwell andLinda Cardellini (Velma, from the live action “Scooby Doo”) as Chutney, Brooke’s spurned, homicidal step-daughter. This is clearly a girl-power movie, but where it takes several steps forward on the feminist front, it takes a step back in LGBT+ representation.

Again, it was made the early 2000s, but rewatching “Legally Blonde” in 2019 reveals some harsh truths about how the LGBT+ community was treated only a decade ago.

There’s Enid Wexler, an opinionated lesbian feminist protesting against the term ‘semester’ and petitioning for the winter semester to be call "ovester," as in ovaries. Then there’s the thong-wearing cabana boy dressed in a sparkling dress-shirt as he testifies at court, claiming to have had an affair with Brooke. This is disproven as Elle realizes “only gay men know designers” and publically outs him, as well as ruining his relationship with his boyfriend.

Pitfalls and cringe-worthy moments aside, the movie comes out with a good message about girl-power and femininity. But if you liked the movie, do not, under any circumstances watch the sequel “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde” or the truly awful spin-off, “Legally Blondes” -- plural -- that features twin high-school girls attending a debate club. The franchise will be ruined for you.

Not to mention, MGM has confirmed the release of “Legally Blonde 3” on Valentine’s Day 2020. Maybe a modern take on this 2000s classic will correct all its pitfalls, but then again, reboots are almost never as good as the original.