Hello, patriots! Civics lesson No. 72: Did you know politics ruins good people? For example, I know Elle Woods, the lawyer, the dumb-blonde joke from Bel Air who made it to leafy Cambridge and inspired all of Harvard to think of new shades of crimson to go with their plaids and cobblestones. I loved Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, the prototypical Reese Witherspoon comedy. And you are no Elle Woods. Sure, you've gone off to Washington and made Legally Blonde 2: Red White & Blonde, and of course, your name is Elle Woods and you show up on Capitol Hill surrounded by gray suits but wearing pink Chanel and a pillbox hat, clutching a shaking Chihuahua in matching Jackie O duds. Which looks like Elle Woods.
You say things like “This is just like C-SPAN, except I'm not bored.” Which sounds like Elle Woods. Your head too, it's all cheekbones, rounding off into a chin that just dares a fool to say something condescending - then you can pull out your withering look of indifference.
Which looks like Reese. What doesn't feel like Reese is the indifference in her eyes - directed out at the audience. For a few films now, Witherspoon has become the great hope of so-so comedy, a light, smart presence who single-handedly commands a room and gives scary conviction to even the fluffiest part. And the problem with so much comedy lately is the stars are so routine, you spend your time watching the character actors who fancy up the place, then shrug when asked to acknowledge the charm of the leading man or lady.
But Reese works miracles, despite a limited range: plucky to plucky, with alternating shades of ditzy and poise. She is the ultimate studio Barbie: Drop her in a new outfit, give her a new job, boyfriend and playhouse and sports car, and the resulting product is worth far more than if you just selected any old off-the-rack doll. Her talent and charisma elevates bad movies. But with Red, White & Blonde, I fear lazy screenwriters and directors are starting to rest entire films devoid of energy or ideas on her.
Maybe that's why her hair seems to have a golden halo of light around it in every scene.
She tries to find something fun to say with the characters but she looks bored and awkward. In the first Legally Blonde, her boyfriend told her he couldn't marry her. He's from New England. He needs “a Jackie, not a Marilyn.”
Red White & Blonde finds her as a proud Marilyn but has to make her a Jimmy, as in Stewart, and crusade for a cause. The results are so mind-numbingly desperate and formulaic, so lacking the pluck and surprise of the first film, especially, it even asks us to buy a plot point we thought was already established.
Elle is a teetering character: We laugh at her sense of entitlement, her vocabulary, her obliviousness to the way the world operates, even as we're asked to believe, beneath it all, she has the rare unflappability and resourcefulness to make a difference. But we knew that.
This new one spends an incredible amount of time running Elle by Beltway cynics and not enough time giving us the curlicues and bright colors and great costumes that we want. The reason for Elle going to D.C. is admittedly promising: She's getting married to Luke Wilson's character (call him Stiff), and wants to send an invitation to her dog's mother. When she finds out mommy woof is being used as a test subject by a cosmetics firm, she calls an old Harvard acquaintance, now a congresswoman (Sally Field).
Elle gets a job in her office and sets out to get anti-animal testing legislation passed. I liked that idea. It's silly, but it doesn't give her anywhere to go with the character. The single revelation is that her dog is gay - it's not a laugh worth $9, but it's in the goofy direction we think we're going to get. The problem: You don't want to have to think about a plot - you didn't with the great classic comedies of the 1940s, either, for example - but director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, who made the cute indie hit Kissing Jessica Stein, leaves no doe-eyed-innocent-takes-on-Washington-establishment clich unturned, or even tweaked.
“Once upon a time I loved politics and I wanted to do some good,” says an aide. There's the bit with a secretly taped conversation that's damaging to a politician (we assume; it's never actually played).
And even when Elle gives her big speech to Congress at the end, she goes completely off topic to urge “Speak up, America!” About what, I'm not exactly sure; though the film rests so much importance on this last inspiring advice, you half-think it truly believes pop-up presentation folders is one secret to changing the world.
Jennifer Coolidge returns as Elle's tacky Boston hairdresser, a skittish bundle of forced smiles squeezed into white leather, and she's so unabashedly loopy it really should be her movie.
Instead, Red White & Blonde is so bored with itself it doesn't even bother to end. All the questions about Elle's bill and her dog get covered by titles printed over a final montage.
The movie looks cruddy, too: They shot in Washington, but I swear a half-dozen scenes used digital Washington backdrops. Then as if to add insult - even Elle's signature costumes are uninspired.
On the eve of the Fourth of July, the only patriotic moral I have to derive from all this is: You can fight Uncle Sam, but all that's waiting at home is Luke Wilson and a closest full of Jimmy Choo shoes. Even if your name is Reese and your Chihuahua is gay.
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