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Witherspoon deserves better than ‘Blonde’

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LEGALLY BLONDE —** 1/2 — Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Davis, Luke Wilson, Jennifer Coolidge, Selma Blair, Victor Garber, Ali Larter, Holland Taylor, Raquel Welch; rated PG-13 (vulgarity, profanity); see the "On the Screen" column for full listing of theaters.

Honest-to-goodness surprises — pleasant ones at least — have been so few and far between this cinematic year that it's been tempting to embrace films that would have been written off in other years.

The latest example is the comedy "Legally Blonde." As charming and downright silly as it may be, this is definitely not the vehicle that up-and-comer Reese Witherspoon deserves after her much-heralded turn in 1999's "Election."

For one thing, it's only funny in fits and spurts, and the story takes a ludicrous, unbelievable turn toward the end. Even worse, the filmmakers fail to develop an interesting romantic subplot, and the film suffers as a result.

Still, Witherspoon does impress as Elle Woods, a sorority president at a Southern California university. Elle thinks she has it all, including a perfect boyfriend — wealthy preppie Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis).

However, it all falls apart for Elle in a hurry when Warner dumps the perky blonde so he can concentrate on bigger things, such as legal training at Harvard University.

Elle isn't content to leave it at that, however, and she's determined to win back his heart. So she buckles down, takes the law-school entrance exam and manages to get into Harvard herself.

But it's still not going to be easy, Warner has already reunited with his former prep-school flame (Selma Blair). And Elle's professors and fellow students have written her off as a ditz. So it becomes an even bigger challenge to prove them all wrong — by winning a prestigious internship and thereby dispelling the dumb-blonde myth once and for all.

Screenwriters Karen McCullah-Lutz and Kirsten Smith ("10 Things I Hate About You") have a lot to work with, but their adaptation isn't nearly as smart as the source material (Amanda Brown's novel). In particular, all the plot threads are wrapped up in a particularly unsatisfying manner (with a cliched "Where are they now?" bit).

First-time filmmaker Robert Luketic doesn't make a lot of mistakes, but he lacks the visual flair to pull it all together. That leaves most of the work to the cast, especially Witherspoon, whose portrayal of Elle is much smarter and much more subtle than the part is written.

Unfortunately, the way the story is structured, Witherspoon doesn't have a whole lot of scenes with co-star Luke Wilson or with the talented supporting cast (Holland Taylor is wasted in what amounts to a cameo).

"Legally Blonde" is rated PG-13 for crude sexual humor and references, scattered profanity and brief, slapstick-style violence. Running time: 96 minutes.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com