If Billy Jack was permitted to follow in the footsteps of Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith and go to Washington, there’s no reason why Elle Wood, the incessantly chirpy sorority-girl heroine of the surprise 2001 hit, shouldn’t do likewise; remaking the Frank Capra classic for a second time may be clear evidence of poverty of invention on the part of screenwriter Kate Kondell (working from a story by herself, Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake), but in Hollywood that’s hardly construed as a capital offense. In this case, however, the result could definitely be called a Capitol crime. What “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde” demonstrates, just as Tom Laughlin’s 1977 debacle did, is just how good (and resilient) Capra’s 1939 movie remains. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is easy to deride as Capra Corn–it’s as manipulative and didactic as critics have often charged; but emotionally it works as an expression of depression-era hope in the possibility of transforming government for the better under the aegis of the New Deal, and it’s beautifully crafted besides. By contrast Laughlin’s version was not only heavy-handed and preachy, but technically a mess; it blared its self-importance in a way that trivialized the message it wanted to proclaim at time when, after Vietnam and Watergate, people’s faith in official honesty and integrity had been shaken to the core. As bad as it was, though, “Billy Jack Goes to Washington” at least had the courage to declare its roots and attempt, however unsuccessfully, to be true to them. This flick doesn’t even bother to admit its inspiration, and it certainly doesn’t share its spirit; it silently turns Capra’s picture into a garish, dull-witted sitcom that plays into contemporary contempt for politics as buffoonery. Though “Legally Blonde 2” closes with the obligatory feel-good finale, unlike its predecessors it’s really a very cynical picture which trashes its source by turning it into mindless fluff.
As the picture opens, Elle (Reese Witherspoon) is a successful attorney in a big Boston firm, preparing her wedding to Harvard prof Emmett Richmond (Luke Wilson) in her customary every-detail-has-to-be-perfect fashion. One matter involves locating the mother of her “best friend” Bruiser, the chihuahua who accompanies her everywhere, and the mutt proves to be a test subject in a cosmetics lab affiliated with one of her firm’s clients. Elle thereupon undertakes to persuade her colleagues (in an especially stupid scene) to pressure the company to change its policies and free the animals, prompting her boss to fire her. Determined to carry her campaign to the highest level, Elle becomes a staffer in the office of Massachusetts congresswoman Victoria Rudd (Sally Field) to get a law passed prohibiting animal testing. Though her colleagues initially dismiss her as a Barbie doll come to life, Elle’s enthusiasm–along with help from an avuncular doorman (Bob Newhart), Bruiser and her beautician pal (Jennifer Coolidge), as well as her sorority connections–eventually wins over two powerful congressional figures, Libby Hauser (Dana Ivey) and Stanford Marks (Bruce McGill). But Rudd sabotages her chances as a result of pressure from campaign donors, and it takes an invasion of her sorority sisters and a change of heart by the congresswoman’s staff to carry the day.
This is all pure fantasy, of course, and on one level it’s harmless nonsense; it’s even possible that its shots at the corrupting influence of money in the political process might have made for a sharp satire. But like Woods herself, it’s so incessantly perky and intellectually vapid that it’s insulting to the viewer’s intelligence. The lead role is similarly demeaning to Witherspoon, who once again just seems too smart an actress to be portraying such an endearing numbskull. (Elle’s victory, after all, doesn’t result from her own cleverness or skill, but from her connections and dumb luck.) No one else comes off well, either. Newhart looks understandably embarrassed, while Coolidge is embarrassingly broad. Field hardly makes a suitable substitute for Claude Rains’s Silver Knight, while Ivey overdoes every scene she’s in. As for Wilson, this summer he’s become the screen’s inevitable love interest–over the past few weeks he’s been romantically paired with Kate Hudson, Cameron Diaz and now Witherspoon. That must be a very pleasurable circumstance for him; too bad it’s painful for viewers, as all the films have been terrible. Technically this is a very well-coiffed “Blonde.” Cinematographer Elliot Davis captures every shade of pink and blue in Missy Stewart’s rampantly pastel production design and Sophie de Rakoff Carbonell’s costumes; the result looks more like the work of confectioners than of filmmakers. The direction by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld (“Kissing Jessica Stein”) emphasizes the cutesy artificiality of the proceedings, and one can only wonder whether his involvement encouraged the curiously intrusive gay elements in the plot, which include a truly weird bit about Bruiser and Congressman Stanford’s dog and an equally odd sight gag involving Elle’s Delta Nu sisters.
The utter vacuity of “Legally Blonde 2” is really a sad commentary on the state of studio filmmaking today. Neither “Mr. Smith” nor “Billy Jack Goes to Washington” avoided pretension, and the latter was, in its own way, pretty awful, but each tried to make a serious point, though with highly varying results. This movie, by contrast, is as empty-headed as its heroine. It’s appropriate that the plot centers on canines, because the movie is certainly a dog.