Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Michael Asimow



Read other reviews:

Paul Joseph
John Denvir
Carrie Menkel-Meadow
Paul Bergman
John Owens
Lawrence Friedman

Taunya Lovell Banks
David Papke

Internet Movie Database
All Movie Guide 



The law school class scenes perpetuate the notion that what happens in the classroom is a bunch of pointless bullying.








The film slices and dices law school and law students with gusto. Not so in the courtroom scenes.

Feature article

By Michael Asimow

Legally Blonde is a pretty good law school comedy and a pretty bad courtroom comedy. As summer movie fare goes, that isn't such a bad average.

Blond bombshell Elle Woods (the Elle comes from Amanda Chang's clever book title--One Elle) gets into Harvard Law School on the strength of a smashing 179 LSAT and a 4.0 in fashion merchandising-- plus a dazzling video (submitted in lieu of the usual essay). She's at Harvard to chase her former boyfriend and despite the advice of her parents that lawyers are ugly, boring and serious. She is definitely none of the above.

In what I thought was a hilarious spoof of an Admissions Committee meeting, the dazzled old fuds on the committee admit Elle in the diversity category. Then follows an amusing culture clash: Elle, a Bel Air airhead (who lived across the street from Aaron Spelling) runs headlong into Cambridge snobbery. Her classmates can't see anymore than a Malibu Barbie and her professors are a bunch of bullies and fools. Professor Callahan, apparently a practicing lawyer in a big firm, is a full professor teaching first year criminal law at Harvard. He enlists students as free help on his cases and he sexually harasses Elle.

The law school class scenes perpetuate the notion that what happens in the classroom is a bunch of pointless bullying. We learned this from Paper Chase and it was reinforced in other law school movies--particularly Just Cause and Soul Man (a thoroughly tasteless law school comedy which is also pretty funny). In Elle's first class, she isn't prepared since she didn't know there was an assignment--and the professor throws her out of the classroom. This scene was reminiscent of Paper Chase, in which the same thing happens to Hart who is then abused pitilessly by Kingsfield. Actually, a better law school teaching scene occurs in The Pelican Brief--in which a teacher and student engage in a reasonably productive interchange about an issue of legal policy; it is spoiled, however, in the next scene when we find teacher and student in bed together.

The fact is that law school classes no longer consist of sadistic professors humiliating helpless students or asking them moronic questions that have no possible educational utility. Instead, what goes on, more often than not, is real learning. Dedicated teachers are transmitting vital analytical skills and debating interesting policy issues with highly engaged students. True, the classes are too big and the Socratic method is inefficient, and the intensity level drops way off after the first year, but the movies never scratch the surface of what law school is really about or address the real problems of contemporary legal education. Still, I thought that the various scenes involving Elle's socialization into law school ways were pretty funny. Reese Witherspoon carries off the part with great flair and I, for one, enjoyed it.

But I didn't much like the courtroom scenes. The bar for courtroom comedies is quite high--My Cousin Vinny, Bananas, Adam's Rib, Roxie Hart, or Mr. Deeds Goes to Town set the standard. These classic pictures are very funny and they satirize the courtroom process and the law to great effect. By comparison, Legally Blonde is strictly bush league. Comedy needs to have a target, to be about something--it works best when it is most destructive. The film slices and dices law school and law students with gusto. Not so in the courtroom scenes.

Here's where Elle joins Callahan's team of lawyers and law students to work on a murder case. The client is accused of killing her much older and very wealthy husband. This part is carelessly written and plotted and the airhead humor wears thin. At best, it is a pallid takeoff on the tiresome old Perry Mason routine of finding the killer in the courtroom.

Elle is the only one of the legal team to establish rapport with the client (who is her former aerobics teacher)--that, at least, makes a valid point. She puts her knowledge of fashion to work by figuring out that a witness who testifies to an affair with the defendant is really gay because he knows shoe designers. Not bad.

The client then fires Callahan and hires Elle, a first year student to head the legal team. They cite the right rule--Massachusetts Rule of Court 3.03--but that rule emphatically does not permit a first year student to represent a wealthy client in a major criminal case (even under the supervision of a practicing lawyer). Instead, the rule applies only to senior law students who have taken a course in evidence or trial practice and are representing the state or an indigent client. Needless to say, Elle doesn't fit any part of the rule and is totally clueless in the courtroom. Nevertheless, by incredible luck she gets the true killer to confess.

So the film is an engaging bit of piffle with some worthwhile things to say about law school and eastern snobs, but no good ideas when it comes to the courtroom.

Posted: August 31, 2001

Would you like to comment on this article? Please submit your comments here.

 Top of page

 Home | Silver Screen | Small Screen | News & Views