It's striking how many conversations about movies consist of sharing feelings about actors, feelings that usually are visceral and difficult to explain. We don't talk about the various shadings of Jack Nicholson's performances as much as we say, "I like Jack Nicholson" or "I don't like Jack Nicholson."
As a result, successful movie stars cultivate strong, dependable and (hopefully) charismatic personalities that they take with them from role to role. This is why some directors, like Robert Bresson or John Sayles or Mike Leigh, tend to avoid casting stars: because they no longer have the ability to surprise. Hollywood producers, on the other hand, thrive on these known commodities because variables get in the way of rational business planning.
I have my own instinctive responses to the big movie stars. Jim Carrey? Don't like him. Uma? Yes. Winona? No. Cameron? Yes. Jim Carrey? No. Owen Wilson? I'll watch him in just about anything, even I Spy. Luke Wilson? I look forward to the swift annihilation of his career. Ben Affleck? I really, really despise him. George Clooney? Love him, devilish smirk and all.
And Reese Witherspoon? I looove that blond actress, who's perky and indefatigable as a wind-up toy. She's a dynamo, like a brassy figure skater with a low-slung center of gravity, a whirligig of bouncy comedy and in possession of a confidently twanging voice. Now she's in total command of her career, a privilege she's certainly earned, having cut her teeth in trashy indies like Freeway before surviving and triumphing on the teen thriller beat (anybody seen Neve Campbell lately?). Her career watershed was Election, a film that has gained in stature since it opened and closed in short order back in 1999. In it, she proved that she had the comic energy to play a flawed character and carry the movie in the process. And then there was Legally Blonde, a surprise smash hit from two years ago.
But Witherspoon had better hope that she still holds on to her power to please, for her essential Reese-ness is all that Legally Blonde 2 has to offer (unless yippy little short-haired Chihuahuas are your thing). For the uninitiated, Witherspoon's Elle Woods is a mincing, squealing, pink-clad sorority sister par excellence who parlayed a 4.0 GPA in fashion merchandising into a spot at Harvard Law School--all to prove that blondes can have brains as well as fun.
That first film was a tightly constructed, emotionally controlled product that found ways to distract our attention from the story's essential one-joke nature. Although Witherspoon dominated it, there were nonetheless several strong supporting performances that gave the film some semblance of depth and texture.
This time around, the biggest gags involve dogs doing cute or naughty things (and the best of these is lifted from South Park). In fact, Elle's dog Bruiser takes center stage in this sequel. Elle discovers that Bruiser's mother is confined in an animal testing facility owned by a cosmetics firm. For this personal care maven, the experience is akin to Saul on the road to Damascus--she becomes a fervent PETA acolyte and her outrage takes her to Washington where she goes to work for a compromised congresswoman (Sally Field).
What follows is an occasionally charming but mostly boring knock-off of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in which Elle brings her good blond heart to bear on the squabbling, do-nothing politicos. She introduces "Bruiser's Bill," which will abolish animal cruelty in the name of feminine beauty. But the film's plot is as flimsy as a Schoolhouse Rock episode that explains how a bill becomes a law, and not nearly as witty. There's just not enough tension in the plot and there's nothing personal at stake. Elle Woods faced more daunting odds in the first film, when she needed to prove her mettle among the Cambridge geniuses and sort out her love life in the process.
Worse, the supporting characters are little more than thin caricatures, and it's a bad sign when the dogs are getting more face time than Jennifer Coolidge, who's used too little in this film. Luke Wilson, as Elle's fiancé, is thankfully absent from most of the film, although the story would have been vastly improved by the inclusion of sexual tension between Elle and a worthier and wittier love interest, not Wilson's dopey Red Sox fan slash Harvard professor. The congressional staffers are a boring lot, but Bob Newhart is a welcome addition to the franchise, though his role as a politically attuned doorman isn't as funny as it should be.
The film's ending hints at a third picture in the franchise. But after the exhausting Legally Blonde 2, it seems more like a threat than a treat. I do adore Reese Witherspoon, but I'm anxious to see her in something new--such as Mira Nair's forthcoming adaptation of Thackeray's Vanity Fair, in which Witherspoon will play the truly formidable Becky Sharp.
In the meantime, I hope Witherspoon will decide that it's time for Elle to retire to the great beauty parlor in the sky.