Liberalism as product placement
(Putting on my best Anne Robinson voice…)
Actually, that’s a gross exaggeration. LEGALLY BLONDE 2 is a not politically radical at all (or even politically very deep, more anon), but that’s what makes it annoying. It’s just a not-very-successful retread of a concept that was a delightful comic gem when it was fresh a couple of years ago — innocently cartoonish kewpie doll shows how smart and effectual she really is when Harvard/Washington look down their noses at her. The half-life of this formula is pretty short — and BLONDE 2 lost two-year’s worth of energy and originality. Everything (with one exception) is a rehash. A genuinely great scene of Witherspoon’s innocently-truthful video application to Harvard Law gets put through the motions here as a Power Point presentation on the life of her pet chihuahua Bruiser that had material obviously calculated (in the character’s mind, I mean) to make a point.
The film wouldn’t be worth chewing over if it weren’t for that one new element — the switch in venue from Boston/Harvard to Washington/Congress. Now, I’m not one of those conspiracymongers who believe “Hollywood” is a singular noun that wakes up in the morning and asks itself over its first latte “what can we put into movies to help the left.” LEGALLY BLONDE 2, for all its surface political subject matter, is primarily a money-spinning frothy comedy — so featherweight that you can’t hold seriously against it the details it gets wrong. It concludes with a staff member giving a speech to a joint session of Congress; it occurs in that alternate political universe where Big Tobacco/Big Oil/Big Lipstick/Big Whatever, can defeat an incumbent congressman on demand merely by giving money to his opponent. That kinda stuff.
But this very fact about it (it’s neither a prestige, “adult” political film like THE CONTENDER nor an indie polemic like BOB ROBERTS) is precisely what makes LEGALLY BLONDE 2 revelatory. Just as “virtue is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking” or “a lord’s character is determined by how he deals with his slaves rather than his king,” the very fact that the film isn’t a seriously political film means that the unstated assumptions, the “of courses” of the world of entertainment show up in sharper relief. LEGALLY BLONDE 2′s understanding of political psychology says a great deal about the climate of political orthodoxy in the entertainment industry and the precise way that its liberal consensus finds its way into films. The film’s basic plot device is that Elle finds out about Bruiser’s mother being used for testing cosmetics. So, just like she went to Harvard Law just to be near her boyfriend, she goes to Washington to pass a law outlawing animal testing and free Bruiser’s mom. Once there, she undergoes the same “airhead fish out of water” humiliations she did at Harvard, but gradually wins everyone over to her team through her pluck and self-assurance and graduates/gets her bill passed.
OK, no problem in principle. But comically speaking, there is absolutely no reason why animal rights has to be the cause (a few easily rewriteable detail jokes aside) — all that’s necessary for the film is that Elle have one. It’s the comic version of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin — she could have gone to Washington to pass a bill to save her family from having to sell their homestead because of the estate tax (first example to pop into my head). Yet when the writers of this film needed a political MacGuffin, they (and, the key point, as in *every other recent commercial, apolitical Hollywood film*) came up with a liberal or left example. The last time I recall a conservative cause at the moral center of a Hollywood entertainment was the risible LISTEN TO ME, where Debate Stud Kirk Cameron persuades the Supreme Court to outlaw abortion. In 1989. But after all, as the head writer on MURPHY BROWN once said, “you write what you know.” And as has been copiously documented (and collected by Michael Medved), the entertainment industry is too well-marinated in liberal orthodoxy to “know” conservatives except as demon Other.
This shouldn’t be taken as too harsh a judgment on any individual film, except that since this sort of political product placement entirely goes one way, you can’t not notice it after a while. Apolitical films in Hollywood today will show only liberals or the left in this sort of neutral or indifferently-positive manner, as a way to fill out the movie. There’s no more reason, for a comedy like LB2, that the cause has to be animal rights rather than abortion, any more than a character has to drink Coke rather than Pepsi. At least with real product placement, the filmmakers are paid to make a choice that is dramatically indifferent. Liberalism gets it for free. And once you start to see it, it begins to work against the movie in question in precisely the same way product placement does — by calling attention to itself and highlighting its selectedness. You see Danny Glover’s daughter at the dinner table in a routine sequence in one of the LETHAL WEAPON sequels wearing a “Save the Whales” T-shirt and your mind wanders to think whose idea it was to pick *that* cause. And why it’s always Coke, Coke, Coke. It becomes the elephant … er, donkey, I guess … in the room.
Not that LEGALLY BLONDE 2 is very much better when politics, primarily animal testing, is explicitly on its mind. Very early on, Elle finds out about Bruiser’s mom and so goes to her law firm and says they should crusade against animal testing because “it’s wrong to harm any living thing merely for profit,” and when the other members of the firm protest, she says “doing the right thing profits everybody in the long run.” As a former grader of undergraduate political philosophy essays filled with unwarranted leaps of reasoning, I just wanted to wince at the former … “and that is the moral standard because …?” and at the latter … “is that really so …?” It’s not that an animal-rights backer could not potentially answer these questions, it’s rather that the film doesn’t see that an animal-rights opponent potentially could deny them. But Elle states the insight as if it were self-evident and it’s never challenged in the movie, except on role-playing terms (“they’re our clients”), legislative flim-flam (Sally Field’s character), personal venality (the chief of staff). Never does the film think to ask why cosmetic firms test the safety of their products — is it really because executives get pleasure or profit *from* torturing bunnies? There’s a throwaway line where Elle says that banning animal testing would provide jobs for “thousands of scientists” to develop alternative methods of determining cosmetic safety. Does one laugh or cry? Do the letters o-p-p-o-r-t-u-n-i-t-y c-o-s-t-s spell anything meaningful? Yet LEGALLY BLONDE 2 continues to move blithely on ahead as if showing gory pictures of animals were some miraculous persuader, before which all opposition crumbles (why hasn’t PETA succeeded yet, if the matter were that simple). As the Washington City Paper complained, the film looks down on characters for treating Elle as a stereotype, but does so by turning everyone else into other sorts of cartoons. This betrays the film’s real conception — essentially it’s a form of wish-fulfillment for its makers and their animal-rights-backing soulmates in the audience. Which is everybody, right? After all, they write what they know.
What made LEGALLY BLONDE 2 especially sad is that the glorious Reese Witherspoon, one of the era’s best actresses, has made an infinitely better political movie. In fact ELECTION is just plain one of the best movies of recent years. After coming home from LB2, I popped in my DVD and watched some of its best scenes — the campaign speeches, Tracy Flick’s self-introduction, Mr. McAllister explaining democracy to Paul — just to reassure myself that smart, serious political satire with noncartoon characters really can be made in this day and age. There is hardly a topical reference in the film, but it explains, just to name one aside, the force behind Clinton’s driven personality in the look on Tracy’s face and her voiceover as she looks out the school bus window. And Paul’s foreshadowing of Dubya in some ways is so funny precisely because it couldn’t have been intentional — the film was released in spring 1999.
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