This Independence Day, the symbolic struggle being waged on thousands of screens across the Empire pits Reese Witherspoon against Arnold Schwarzenegger, gooey-sweet girl against impassive (but protective) male killing machine. Let film criticism stand mute before this clash, and also a little to the side, out of harm’s way. The opening-week box-office contest between Legally Blonde 2: Red White & Blonde and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines reveals nothing about their relative cinematic merits but may plausibly serve to gauge public attitudes. By the time you read this, either hot pink or blood red will have prevailed in the only plebiscite available to us, the one where votes are cast in green.
Most prognosticators have picked Reese to win in a landslide; and considering the screen persona she’s developed, I’ve looked forward to her victory. As you will recall, she began her political career in Election, in which she aspired, rather desperately, to preside over the student council in her high school. When the film was narrated by her civics teacher, Reese appeared to be a sexually alluring monster. When it adopted her point of view, you saw the shame and impecuniousness behind the cover-girl mask. Like all candidates, Reese wanted to win office as a way of getting something else–in this case, proof that she’d hidden every human failing.
You might say that she got what she wanted when she progressed from Election to Legally Blonde. In the character of Elle Woods, Reese suddenly was perfect, as perfection is defined by casting agents, the Condé Nast chain and America’s best retail merchants. The movie’s trick–or rather the trick of Amanda Brown, who wrote the source novel–was to take this young woman from her Bel Air home into a place of equal but different privilege, Harvard Law School, so that she became an underdog. Though now free of inner tension (compared to her character in Election) and safe from material risk, the Reese of Legally Blonde nevertheless faced a real challenge. She had to make good on her superficial virtues, converting perkiness into resilience, good cheer into generosity.
In this, she was irresistible. Not only did she redeem society from its bad judgment–its habit of prizing glossy yellow hair, big white teeth and pink skin for their own sake–but she also discovered the value of a couple of things that society often fails to honor in women: native intelligence and a readiness to co-operate with other women across class lines. Like the Reese of Election, the born winner of Legally Blonde was willing to work her brain hard. Unlike the Reese of Election, she was also willing to make common cause with an obese, battered hairdresser who lived in a trailer.
So I don’t need to see LB2 to endorse it over T3. I want Reese to eat Arnold like a canapé, finishing him off with the daintiest of burps and that eye-scrunching twinkle. Let Mr. Bush and his boys in Lubbock see that nightmare, advertised as “America’s number-one movie.”
As a professional, though, I had to lay eyes on my candidate. What I saw in LB2 made me walk out of the movie house muttering, “Lousy Democrats sold us out again.”
In this new adventure, Reese wangles a job as legislative aide to a Congresswoman (Sally Field) so she can push a one-item agenda: banning the testing of cosmetics on animals. (She’s adopted the cause on behalf of her little pooch, Bruiser.) Shoulders jiggling merrily in a seesaw motion, right hand poised beside her hip like a little tray, Reese tritzes with Bruiser up the Capitol steps wearing white gloves, pearls and a pink outfit with matching pillbox hat, making a smart contrast with that drab navy and charcoal on everyone else. She is bringing conscience and caring and fun to Washington–but most of all, as she and the rest of the cast say many, many times, she is bringing her own voice.
I will begin my comments on this story as Reese herself would do, with a warm-‘n’-fuzzy: Legally Blonde 2 is a gay-friendly film. Snaps to Legally Blonde 2 for making gay marriage a part of its own legislative agenda, and even doing it doggy style (thanks to Bruiser).
The next best thing I can say–from which you can see how fast we’re heading down–is that Legally Blonde 2 has the courage to make Reese’s chief antagonist a black woman (Regina King): a sneering, cold, manipulative, self-righteous young black woman, whose instantaneous hatred for the new legislative aide might have something to do with a few centuries of being ground down by the glossy yellow-haired and glowing pink-skinned. By the end of the movie (as you could guess blindfolded) this antagonist will have come around, having perceived the gifts that reside within Reese’s shiny package. Until then, though, our package is nearly pulverized by a black bitch mistress.
This leads me to ask, What gifts? As she went from a good film, Election, to a justly successful pop movie, Legally Blonde, Reese lost complexity and urgency but gained a social conscience and a sense of delight in discovering the world of ideas. In going from the first Legally Blonde to the sequel, though, Reese has only lost. All the thinking is now done for her–by the doorman of her apartment building, yet, as if in tacit acknowledgment that a woman of Reese’s station has service personnel to take care of these little things. Reese never has to work hard to succeed in Washington, and must never, ever change (except to put on a navy outfit, once). Nor does she have to reach beyond her own class, other than to address the very knowledgeable doorman by name (they love that), or to pal around fitfully with her hairdresser friend from the first movie (Jennifer Coolidge, here reduced to a cameo).
Gone, too, are the director and writers of the first Legally Blonde. Not much of a loss, you might think. The director, Robert Luketic, had previously made only a short, unseen by this critic, called Titsiana Booberini. (A romp, I imagine.) The writers, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, had credits almost as sparse and inglorious. And yet, with Legally Blonde 2 under the care of the same producers, Marc Platt and David Nicksay, a new team of filmmakers has created the Death Valley of girlie comedy. The director, Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, shoots and edits with the panache of your Uncle Hy handling a twelve-buck disposable camera. The writers (Kate Kondell, Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake) spare us neither the obligatory clip of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington nor the ordeal of watching Reese perform her own version of his tirade, though of course without perspiration or mussed hair. Her climactic message: Believe in yourself, America–because you’re beautiful.
No snaps to that. Were Mr. Bush and his boys in Lubbock dragged off to see LB2, as a break from making America and everyplace else that much uglier, they would find nothing in Reese’s complacency to disturb their own.
So, with regret, I withdraw my endorsement and cast about for a new candidate–something feminine, but with enough oomph to challenge Schwarzenegger on his own ground. And here it is, the movie of the summer, perhaps the movie of the year–Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.
As a grand-scale artwork created by the labor of many hands, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle might reasonably be compared to a Gothic cathedral, if Chartres could twitch its ass in your face. Actually, for the analogy to hold, I suppose all three doorways would need to circle right, circle left, swish, swish and bump. Repeat! Matchless entertainment. Given the variations in hue among these portals (Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore), CA:FT might also be likened to Monet’s serial paintings of Rouen.
Who created this monument? According to the opening credits, CA:FT is “A Film by McG,” a formulation that simultaneously asserts authorship and exposes the production’s near-anonymity. The creators of this opulent fireworks show, this summer picnic of kung fu, flamethrowers and irrepressible good spirits, must surely include not only the developers of the 1970s television series (Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts) but also the makers of innumerable 1960s spy-movie spoofs (the kind that starred Dean Martin or James Coburn), the tabloids that have made Drew Barrymore the figure she is today, the Farrelly Brothers (who first let Cameron Diaz be herself onscreen), David E. Kelley (who sprang Lucy Liu on an astonished public), the three screenwriters of the first Charlie’s Angels movie (only one of whom has come back for this installment) and a total of eight producers. To search for a directorial personality in all this would seem as pointless as wondering what happened to the rest of McG’s name.
And yet, from the first moments of the goofily elaborate tracking shot that opens CA:FT, you sense that somebody is riding the right rhythm and tone. Disguises will be thrown on frequently and just for fun (we wouldn’t want to fool anybody); dance numbers with plenty of twitch may start at any moment (we’re glad you like them); and all laws of physics, except those applicable to Looney Toons, will be suspended for the duration. This much you get before you’re even done with the opening credits.
Most of all, best of all, you immediately get the personalities of the stars, which come smack at you with a vividness that needs no dialogue and no backstory. With what breathtaking confidence they take the screen: well-bred perfectionist Lucy (who’d be a nerd if she didn’t look like that), sexy tomboy Cameron and trailer-park brawler Drew (whose sadness makes her the Ringo of this band). This time, the Angels will have to save Drew from the worst of her many bad boyfriends, as part of a broader effort to safeguard the right of Americans to maintain secret identities.
Pretension cannot penetrate within a fifty-kilometer radius of this movie. Gender stereotypes (or racial ones for that matter, as sent up by Angels sidekick Bernie Mac) cannot survive for fifteen seconds, the time that passes between each costume change. In CA:FT, social reality as a whole seems to be nothing but a series of show-business poses (an impression reinforced by the climax, which is literally a Hollywood ending). So long as this particular film is running, the poses are a joke that the audience shares.
I wish that the pop tunes on the soundtrack were not layered nonstop. I wish Bernie Mac had shown more emphatically how he would freeze the blood of any white man who took his act seriously. And I wish the motocross race in the coal pit were shorter. Except for that, no complaints.
Reese and Arnold have met their conquerors.