Daily Archives: October 20, 2003

MOVIETIME: The Legally Blonds

I now know where they went wrong with the second one.

As it happens, I saw the second one before I saw the first and as a result I almost never watched the original, and that would have been a shame.

As a comedy standing on its own, Legally Blonde 2 has a serious problem: at heart, it isn’t serious enough. It doesn’t take Elle seriously, it doesn’t take her relationship with Emmett seriously, it doesn’t take her newfound intelligence seriously, and worst of all, it doesn’t take her passion seriously. It just goes back to the college Elle–the flaky, fashion-obsessed, prom-queen Elle–and drops her into the middle of Washington like the Clampetts got dropped into Beverly Hills: unceremoniously. Like them, Elle lands with a thud and forms a large crater.

Reese Witherspoon is an extraordinarily gifted comic actor–Election proved that beyond a reasonable doubt–and she puts all the energy and charisma she has at her disposal into Elle’s new predicament but it’s no use. Somewhere along the line, the new writers forgot her character (if they ever knew it) and came up with a different one that’s thin as a high-fashion model’s calves and about as substantial as President Barbie…or Bush, for that matter. It’s a one-note cartoon centered on a dolt–and a wimpy, whiny, unsympathetic dolt at that. The story is just as anorexically skinny as the new Elle, and all-in-all you come away feeling that it might be better for everybody if the dog ate her.

But the worst part of all this is that it didn’t have to be that way. After finally seeing the first LB, a charming and funny send-up of lookism in general and blonde jokes in particular, I was at a loss to understand how they’d screwed it up so bad. Elle Woods is a genuine comic invention, like Jack Benny’s miser or Lily Tomlin’s Edith; to throw it away and put in its place Adam Sandler’s polar opposite wasn’t just dumb, it was criminal. What could they have been thinking? Box office, yes, but they always think that and it’s not like there was any real risk; as long as Witherspoon agreed to do it, it would make money if a monkey wrote it. So–what, then?

High-concept thinking, that’s what; the bane of Hollywood’s better half. Here’s how the story conference probably went:

“They greenlight LB2?”
“Yeah, so now what do we do with her?”
“I got it! Get this: we send her to…Washington! Get it?”
“Got it. Brilliant.”
Quit for the day.

It might have worked if they’d done it right, but they didn’t. They disemboweled Elle’s character by making her frivolous. In the first movie, she was working on a murder case; the stakes were high and we were right there with her. In LB2, she introduces a bill so silly it’s a wonder lightning doesn’t strike her dead on the spot. There’s nothing at stake here–nothing. Who cares? They completely forgot about what suckers Elle into the law in the first place and draws out all the passion she’d hidden from herself: underneath all that SoCal superficiality and pampered privilege is the heart of a woman who seriously cares about people. That matters, that makes the difference, and they violated it. They didn’t get it.

Here’s how it could have been done:

1) Make the bill she introduced real–on the budget, discrimination, anything with real consequences where real people might get hurt. And let it be on behalf of someone else–not her own, egocentric pet project. Do that, and the Elle we fell in love with in the first movie would be back with a pink vengeance, loaded for bear and brunettes.

2) Forget Washington. It’s too big a jump. Let’s see her in her first year out of law school with a high-powered firm when they discover that the F Lee Bailey clone they thought they were hiring is apparently nothing more than Emma’s Big Sister. Do that, and we don’t just have Elle back, we’ve got a hit tv series on our hands.

LB2 did at the box office what it would have done no matter what was on the screen. Had they stuck to the original character, it would have made as much or more than the original. Some genius exec threw away a fortune because s/he didn’t understand that–or was so busy looking at the bottom line that s/.he missed it completely. As things go in Hollywood, that passes for tragedy.

Politics Without Vision

For some time now I’ve been meaning to write about the lack of a national vision in both political parties. It seems to me that our politicians spend a lot of time talking about local and regional and even national programs, goals, initiatives, and so on without much taking a crack at defining how those p’s, g’s. and i’s would fit into a context larger than self-interest. It’s a major missing element in what little discussion we’re having, this “where do we want to go with all this?” kind of stuff. You’d think nobody cared.

You’d be wrong. We do. It’s just that nobody in a position to challenge us to think outside our own narrow issues and concerns ever does. The Republics offer slogans and simple-minded, easy-to-digest platitudes, and the Democrats offer…nothing. No vision at all, nothing but p’s, g’s, and i’s galore, tailored to every taste and constituency. It’s as if the larger context is unimportant–or non-existent.

I’ve been meaning to, and one of these days I will, but in the meantime we have an impassioned plea for the return of statesmanship that will do until something better comes along. Chi-Dooh Li, a Seattle attorney and a Republican, writes in Sunday’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer that:

The us vs. them mind-set inevitably leads to narrowed and warped notions of service in leaders and deep alienation in constituents.

After noting an instance from the 70’s when Republican Gov. Dan Evans chided Li for writing a memo that codified the differences between friends and enemies on a particular bill by–

telling me that in his administration, we did not maintain “enemies lists.”

–he writes of an encounter in Mexico with a newly-elected leader.

Two-plus years ago I traveled to Chiapas in southern Mexico and met with Pablo Salazar, then newly elected governor of that state.Salazar’s election in the state where the rebel Zapatista movement was strongest was remarkable not only because he had broken away from the ruling Mexican PRI party to run as an independent but also because he was and is a devout Protestant in a predominantly Roman Catholic region.

In Mexico, Protestant Christians are known as “evangelicos.” Economic and sometimes physical persecution of evangelicos by Catholics in Chiapas and other rural regions of Mexico is a regular occurrence.

In that conversation, Salazar spoke of the pressure he was receiving from his evangelico supporters to advocate legislation and issue executive orders favorable to their interests.

Salazar responded by reminding them that he was elected governor of all the people of Chiapas, including Catholics and atheists and not just evangelicos. He told them he would only take such actions as he believed served the good of all.

His response produced angry reactions from many in his evangelico constituency who felt he had turned his back on them.

Salazar and Evans are separated by culture, geography and a generation of time. But both men exemplify one enormously important character trait in a statesman: a generous spirit.

It is a spirit that enables political leaders to act with magnanimity toward opponents and detractors, no matter how shrill they may be, and to understand that they are elected to serve their entire constituency, and not just those who support them. (emphasis added–m)

Go read the whole thing. All I can say to this man with whom I probably disagree on any number of things is:

“Me too.” And I wish I could have said it as well.