Legally Blonde – Another Case Of The Bad Sequel

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 and tokenism.

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, and even worse, an attempt to remake Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Frank Capra is probably spinning in his grave. 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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