Somebody’s Got to Give Blondes a Good Name

Robert Luketic’s Legally

Blonde , from a screenplay by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, based

on the book by Amanda Brown, lacks the satiric bite of Alexander Payne’s Election (1999) and the neo-classical

grace of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless

(1995), but it also lacks the grossness and calculated idiocy of so many

current school-age farces-which is to say that one has to reach back a bit to

find where Legally Blonde has fallen

short. To start with, the spelling of “blonde” with an “e” tells us right off

the bat that Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods is not seeking a prize for

political correctness. Her shameless quest for Mr. Right goes on long after her

boyfriend Warner (Matthew Davis) has squelched their romance with the pompously

self-satisfied statement: “If I’m going to be a Senator, I need to marry a

Jackie, not a Marilyn.” Blondes of the world, unite-you’ve just been insulted.

But after a long cry, Elle cravenly decides to follow him to Harvard Law

School, abandoning her major in fashion merchandising for something more

substantial.

Stranger things have happened in the academic world, I

suppose, but I did idly wonder why Elle wouldn’t pursue a movie career, for

which her babe-like Southern California virtuosity and intelligence qualify

her, rather than an Old Economy profession like the law-even if the guy she’s

pursuing is a blueblood with rich parents.

Of course, we know that Elle will meet every challenge that

she faces and wind up with both a viable legal career and Mr. Right-even if

he’s not the original one. But we still root for her all the way because she

proves to be a decent and generous person under all the ridiculous surface

frippery. Indeed, Ms. Witherspoon won me over right from the start, during

Elle’s last dinner date with Warner. As he circuitously leads up to his

bombshell rejection, her face becomes a symphony of fast-changing expressions

denoting agreement and acquiescence until she breaks down from the shock of Warner’s

bad news. It’s an expertly acted piece of self-parody that never diminishes her

attractiveness.

I have been following Ms. Witherspoon’s career ever since

she burst on the screen in her first feature-length film, Robert Mulligan’s The Man in the Moon (1991). She was then

in her early teens, and in the decade since she has managed to attract a

modicum of attention in modestly serious projects that came in under the radar

of tumultuous public acceptance. So she has not yet become a big box-office

star, but Legally Blonde is as close

as she’s come to a star-sized vehicle, if not a star-making one. She is now 25,

and the press vultures will be out in force, waiting for her to stumble and

making snide comments about her appearance-if, that is, she threatens to become

too big. Remember what happened to Alicia Silverstone after Clueless -and what has become of her

since?

In the months and years to come, Ms. Witherspoon will be

thrust into competition with a sizable crop of young and talented actresses for

a very few good female roles. So far, she has shown a shrewd eye in picking her

projects. As a case in point, Legally

Blonde is a well-conceived, well-crafted entertainment. Giving something

extra in their supporting roles are Luke Wilson as Elle’s final Mr. Right,

Selma Blair as her snooty rival, Mr. Davis as the eventually woeful Warner,

Victor Garber as a disillusioningly Gary Condit–like law professor, Jennifer

Coolidge as an emotionally needy manicurist helped by Elle, Holland Taylor as

the law professor who inspires her to continue when all seems lost, Ali Larter

as Brooke Taylor Windham, a woman charged with murdering her rich husband (but

instantly acquitted by Elle’s courtroom coup), and Oz Perkins as Dorky David,

another recipient of Elle’s charitable largesse.

As you may have gathered by now, everything revolves around

Elle, and Ms. Witherspoon makes it seem as logical as the earth revolving

around the sun. That is what I call screen magic.

A Cold, Computerized Caper

Frank Oz’s The Score ,

from a screenplay by Kario Salem, Lem Dobbs and Scott Marshall Smith, manages

to waste a prestigious cast on a tediously long-winded caper plot that finishes

with a double-cross that, if not entirely predictable, still manages to be

anticlimactic. Indeed, the film ends so abruptly that I suspected something had

been cut out at the last minute. It’s more than half a century since John

Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

launched the painstakingly detailed safe-cracking genre, with sympathetic

criminals exercising “the left hand of human endeavor.” As far as I can figure

out, the only motivation for the making of The

Score is to appeal to the indeterminate computer-hacker population, both

real and vicarious.

Robert De Niro’s Nick Wells performs one last job of

safecracking before retiring to his home and jazz club in Montreal. Or at least

that’s what he thinks, until Max (Marlon Brando), Nick’s fence, friend and

financial partner, tempts him with a multimillion-dollar heist on which the two

can retire for good. Sound familiar? Sexy

Beast is still around and is considerably more character-driven than The Score , though the caper itself makes

even less sense than this one. That’s what I found disappointing in The Score . Mr. Oz, the director, has

made his mark as a gifted practitioner with pleasant comedies. Since the caper

genre is new to him, he insisted in the advance publicity that he was going to

concentrate on the relationships of the characters.

Besides Nick and Max, the only other prominent characters

are Edward Norton’s Jackie Teller, a young, nervy, technologically

sophisticated thief whom Max has recruited to assist Nick in stealing a royal

scepter worth millions from behind the walls of Montreal’s Customs House.

Initially Nick refuses the job, because it violates two of his most cherished

rules: first, by making him work with an accomplice, and second, by making him

steal in his own hometown (and for once, Montreal is photographed as

Montreal-Nick and Max speaking a little French and all that-and not as a

cost-saving substitute for New York). Nick also takes an instant dislike to

Jackie. Meanwhile, Angela Bassett, as Nick’s girlfriend, has the thankless, High Noon –like task of begging Nick not

to crack another safe in a movie called The

Score . So much for character. Mr. Norton, meanwhile, displays his

schizophrenic virtuosity in the scenes where Jackie poses as a facially palsied

janitor to get a job in the Customs House.

There are a few nervous laughs at the expense of the film’s

immature hackers, one of whom is always screaming at his mother after she

screams at him. The rest reminds me of Bobby Clark’s line in Victor Herbert’s Sweethearts : “Never was a thin plot so

complicated.” I should add that Mr. Brando does an amusing imitation of Rod

Steiger.

What If the Nazis Had

Occupied Japan?

Hiroyuki Okiura’s Jin-Roh:

The Wolf Brigade , from a screenplay by Mamoru Oshii, is the curiously

convoluted animated allegory of an imaginary Tokyo, set in an alternate Japan

after a Nazi German occupation. The human figures are two-dimensionally

lifelike, though without much expression. Hence, the story is transmitted by

dubbed English dialogue and narration, and functions on at least two

levels-first, to put a more lethal twist on the Little Red Riding Hood fable,

and second, to look back on the political crisis in Japan around 1960.

I found the result interesting, but uninvolving. As with Cats and Dogs , the problem lies in the

congested narrative in which the characters are enmeshed. This is not to say

that Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade is anything

less than light-years more evolved and ambitious than Cats and Dogs , but it, too, confirms my preference for live-action

cinematography, without any tricks or conceits to place quotation marks around

an already fantastic illusion of reality.

A Man Hunt

Baise-Moi ( Rape Me ), co-directed and co-written by

Coralie Trinh Thi and Virginie Despentes, is based on the French prize-winning

novel by Ms. Despentes. One would think that a film with such a provocative

title would turn out to be a voyeur’s delight, or at least a male sexist’s

guilty pleasure, such as is to be found in the Japanese “pink” genre, with its

artful simulations from the male point of view, pandering to male sexual

fantasies of availably helpless female victims.

That is not the case here, with Baise-Moi ‘s patchy shooting and editing and anarchic, in-your-face

flaunting of male and female genitalia. It’s as if the filmmakers are

ridiculing the strictures of the censors without providing the teasing lechery

so sought after by the raincoat brigades of yesteryear, before porn videos put

the old “adult” movie houses out of business-but not before poor Pee-Wee Herman

was publicly, needlessly and shamefully humiliated.

Raffaëla Anderson and Karen Bach, who play Manu and Nadine,

the two murderously man-hating leads, are described in the program notes as

French porn stars, but they’re not really photographed that way in the film;

instead, they’re often seen in soul-baring close-ups. Ms. Trinh Thi, the

co-director and co-writer, has also reportedly performed in porn videos. It is

safe to say, therefore, that there’s a considerable feeling of identification

between the director and her two protagonists. There is considerable anger as

well, and the film never makes it clear where all this gender rage is coming

from. The one spark of lucidity ignites when one of Manu and Nadine’s robbery

victims starts to sweet-talk the pair in an avuncular manner. One of the girls

seems to respond to his tone of reason and understanding, but her partner ends

the budding rapport by smashing her pistol in the man’s groin, making him

blubber piteously, his smug complacency gone, before finishing him off.

For the most part, however, Manu and Nadine function more as

undiscriminating killing machines than as psychologically selective sexual

avengers. They even kill a woman in the course of robbing her after she’s

withdrawn money from an automatic teller. On another occasion, a young man who

insists on using a condom is blown away, as are hordes of blowjobbers in a sex

club. Manu and Nadine’s inevitable downfall is not romanticized or

aestheticized, but it seems as pointlessly arbitrary as everything that has

gone before. As art, it is all badly done.