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Legally Blonde violates the only cardinal rule of its genre: The dumb blonde does not triumph on the intellectual playing field. As manifested by Judy Holliday, “Say Goodnight” Gracie Allen, Marilyn Monroe, or current torch-bearer Lisa Kudrow, the blonde beats the men and the brunettes by re-imagining the game, her dizzy spin on the familiar scattering pretension and snobbery like a summer breeze. The blonde can be selfless or avaricious, naive or savvy, chatty or dreamy, but she is never, ever book-smart. In 1953, Monroe pithily nailed the state of the romantic union with “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?” If the Legally Blonde team had made Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monroe would have then donned horn-rims and delivered a breathy lecture about gender inequality and patriarchal hegemony.

Reese Witherspoon plays überblonde Elle Woods, a manicure-addicted, “like”-abusing homecoming queen who is president of her L.A. university’s sorority. Her snooty boyfriend, Warner Huntington III (Matthew Davis), dumps her just before he heads off to Harvard Law School, because he wants to be a senator by age 30 and needs “a Jackie, not a Marilyn.” After a week of watching soap operas, Elle decides to go to Harvard herself to win him back.

It’s a classic dumb-blonde setup: What wacky scheme will fashion major Elle cook up to get into Harvard Law? Alicia Silverstone’s Cher engineers a love affair between her teachers to get her grades raised in Clueless; Romy and Michele claim that they invented Post-its to impress at their reunion; Elle, well, studies hard and aces her LSATs. She’s actually, like, rilly smart, even though she dresses her Chihuahua in outfits that match her own and calls Cosmo “the Bible.” She’s also kind and forgiving and damn near omnipotent: Her only real obstacle is those East Coast meanies judging her by her pink-vinyl-and-marabou exterior. What should have been a fizzy fantasy or fish-out-of-water comedy thus becomes an empowerment lecture on affirmative action for the rich, white, and shallow.

Witherspoon giggles and hair-flips winningly enough but is undone by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith’s moronic script. To paraphrase Frank Perdue, it takes smart filmmakers to make a dumb-blonde movie today, because she doesn’t mean what she used to. Rather than standing for feminine intuition in a male world of logic, the blonde’s now more likely to reflect a whole society gone fluffy: Most contemporary blonde movies, including Clueless, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, The Muse, and Legally Blonde, are set in superconsumerist, superficial Los Angeles. The Muse uses the blonde most satirically (to succeed in Hollywood, writers and directors must pay escaped mental patient Sharon Stone for script-doctoring), but in the sunnier movies, blondes triumph because life really is all about shopping and popularity.

Legally Blonde is clearly aping Clueless, but the 1995 movie works because of Jane Austen’s plot of social sponsorship and romantic misunderstanding. The outfits and the hair and the boy-craziness just provide a background for Cher’s awakening, whereas in Legally Blonde, they’re defended as if they were a brave political stance. Elle wins her big day in court by tripping up a key witness in a lie involving a perm. Afterward, she boasts to the gaggle of reporters (lawyer-movie clichés are tossed on the pile with the rest) that her lifelong study of hair care won the case. “Any Cosmo girl would have known,” she beams. The legal community stands in awe of her wisdom and vows never again to judge People Who Are Different.

The pacing is draggy, the soundtrack is generic girl pop, Elle’s romance with that cute Emmett (Luke Wilson) is leaden, and there’s a painfully awful production number in a beauty shop. The one bright spot is sad-sack manicurist Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge, of American Pie and Best in Show). Elle helps Paulette get her dog back from her ex-husband by putting on her smart-girl glasses and saying “habeas corpus” and other lawyer things in her baby voice. As the gals drive away with the repoed bulldog, Elle giggles about the ex, “He’s probably still scratching his head.” Paulette drawls, “That’s a nice vacation for his balls.” The movie’s at its still-crummy best when it’s a little smutty, especially when the lewdness comes from raspy-voiced, puffy-lipped Coolidge.

“Whoever said orange was the new pink was seriously disturbed,” is one of superlawyer Elle’s sage observations. But Legally Blonde swaps realities just as blithely: Integrity trumps intellect in the making of a great lawyer. The champion for not judging a book by its cover is a perfectly made-up and overdressed beauty. Shallow is the new deep and dumb is the new smart. CP