It was a few years ago that someone gave me a copy of Scott Turow’s One L.
For those who have not encountered this book, it is Turow’s account of his
first year at Harvard Law. Law school was not a frightening experience
for me, possibly because I had heard my own father grumble about law professors
many years before, and then I had also seen The Paper Chase (film
and TV versions), aside from reading Turow’s book. Law school isn’t
easy, and it shouldn’t be. Law practice is tough, and just as with
medicine and the scientific professions, the state of the art changes constantly.
You can go crazy just trying to keep on top of things. Which brings
me to the subject of Reese Witherspoon’s two law movies, which co-exist under
the collective title of Legally Blonde, another story of Harvard Law School.
At the expense of being accused of liking “chick flicks,” I found the first
film very enjoyable, combining the right amounts of comedy, romance and realism.
Even Elle Woods, for all the times she appeared empty headed, proved that
she was as smart or smarter than anyone else. She took all of the criticism,
negative input and difficulties in stride, and with a little help proved
that she had what it took, even if her own parents didn’t believe in what
she was doing at the outset. For all that this was not an overtly serious
movie, it was true to the law school experience where it counted.
My own experiences also illustrate that the vast majority of what Elle experienced
was accurate. Professors will try to intimidate students. Some
students will intimidate each other. There will always be students
who are not prepared, and some simply don’t belong in a law program.
That’s just the way it is. Some professors chalk it up to an alleged
competitive instinct in the minds of their students, but the simple fact
that grading is almost always on an immeasurably steep curve stimulates competition
more than anything else. Students want a job when they graduate and
grades are what count to a potential employer.
Likewise, Elle’s experience in her internship is fairly accurate. Law
offices are shot through with politics, greed, and sexual undercurrents,
regardless of what the profession may like us to think. It is not uncommon
for someone to sleep their way to an important position or for someone who
plays politics well to get ahead when they haven’t a shred of legal talent.
I remember one secretary who told me that an influential partner in her firm
was a joke when it came to professional ability. Of course, she had
worked for several other lawyers in that firm and had prior experience elsewhere
from which to judge. I have since overheard remarks in the same vein
regarding other people who owed their positions to politics, influence peddling
The courtroom scenes where Elle won the defense of her client were also nothing
new. Truth is often stranger than fiction, and new associates often
see things that others with more experience do not. Sometimes it seems
that more experienced lawyers are too focused on the legal side of things
and forget the facts. Other times they simply lack the breadth of knowledge
which would enable them to figure things out. They have concentrated
on one thing for too long, and sometimes that thing is out of step with more
modern society. Most significantly, Elle won her case on the facts,
rather than on the law. Pulling a factual rabbit out of a hat is what
made Perry Mason famous. I did it too, on one occasion, suggesting
that illnesses blamed on radiation were actually the result of coccidiomycosis,
a.k.a. valley fever. Not that anyone remembered it long afterward.
In any event, what should stick in the mind of the audience is the simple
fact that Elle did what was right, and she did it the right way. She
stuck up for just causes, won her points honestly, and did not try to take
advantage of her position when she could have. She helped out the geek
who wanted a date and made him look good doing it. She protected her
client despite her superior’s demands. She made herself into a top
student who delivered the valedictory speech at graduation. Finally,
her story had a fairy tale ending, where she gets a great guy, while the
other guy who threw her over got nothing.
The success of this film is very likely because the original story came from
a person with the right experience; someone who knows something of law school
and law practice. The production staff was able to blend the right
amounts of reality with humor and make the story attractive to a wide audience.
In short, it was an intelligent story, made into an intelligent film, and
it was intelligently done. This intelligence is what was missing from
the sequel, which was and is its undoing.
We have all heard the story of the bad sequel. It has happened so many times that the list would cover pages. Even Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back
was tarred with the same brush, for all that it was a good action film.
After all of this you would think that the people responsible for Legally Blonde would have learned to leave well enough alone. They didn’t. Red, White and Blonde
begins with Elle working for a major law firm, doing well, and expected to
advance rapidly. She is also about to get married, as announced at
the end of part one. Unfortunately, while setting up the guest list
Elle decides that she has to invite her pet Chihuahua Bruiser’s, mother.
A detective is hired who finds that the mother dog is confined in an animal-testing
lab that also happens to be a major client of Elle’s employer. Elle
gets herself fired by making an animal rights presentation to the partners,
so she has nothing left but to go off to Washington, DC as a legislative
aide to a hard nosed congresswoman played by Sally Field. How she got
that opportunity is not really addressed.
Of course, Elle finds herself in over her head, once again, but this time,
instead of finding her way out by using her brains, she is forced to resort
to political scheming, staging a million dog march, giving away hairstyles
and getting free advice from her doorman, played by Bob Newhart in his usual
style. Along the way the writers find ways to pander to a number the
left wing causes including PETA, and what I hope is a fictitious group called
Gay Dogs of America. They also make a laughing stock of a number of
otherwise respectable appearing legislators. One, a woman senior committee
member, becomes a total space case when Elle reminds her of her membership
in Delta Nu sorority. Another, a male southern NRA supporter, becomes
enamored of his “gay” dog. In the end Elle wins, not because of her
brains, not because of persistence and hard work, but primarily because Sally
Field’s character gets caught saying the wrong thing on tape, and is essentially
blackmailed by another staffer.
At the conclusion, one is left with the unsatisfied and disquieting feeling
that this is not just another bad sequel, but rather, an even worse attempt
to remake Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Frank Capra is probably spinning
in his grave. Unfortunately, Capra had a superb cast to work with and
a good story. This work has only Reese Witherspoon’s comic charm, Sally
Field and Bob Newhart. They are not enough to save the movie from itself.
The only redeeming value which remains is a bit of information imparted on
how the federal legislative process works, and how corruption sneaks in by
the back door whenever possible. Instead of making intelligent use
of these assets, the film tries too hard to be funny, and in so doing falls
flat on its face. It deserved better.
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