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.

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