California sorority queen Elle (Reese Witherspoon) takes it into her blondined head to go to Harvard Law School to retrieve an ambitious boyfriend. Her beloved Warner (Matthew Davis) has told her that, in the interests of his political career, he has to marry a 'Jackie' and not a 'Marilyn,' like poor, befuddled Elle. She arrives in Cambridge with adorable dog and designer duds in tow and proceeds to cut a splashy swath in those ivied halls. She becomes involved in the murder trial of her former aerobics instructor (Ali Larter), and breezily wins the day and the right guy, down-to-earth lawyer Emmet (Luke Wilson). Poor, bitchy Vivian (Selma Blair), her rival for Warner's affections, can only fume on the sidelines.

Imagine an even fluffier, semi-academic Private Benjamin without all that gross army stuff, and you have this summer chick flick properly nailed. Legally Blonde begins in a flossy way to beg unfavorable comparison with the masterpiece of the genre, Clueless. However, it soon degenerates into a too-slick silliness that confuses empowerment with cloying cutesiness. If the filmmakers had merely stayed on campus and dealt with the culture clash Elle experiences with her snotty, more conservatively groomed classmates, the movie would have at least passed for a fluffy diversion. But to haul in courtroom scenes which are resolved when the true felon is exposed by Elle's cannily girlish reading of hair-permanent do's and don'ts is just insufferably precious. (If this is 'Girl Power,' I'll take vanilla.)

Director Robert Luketic's one previous film was a short entitled Titsiana Booberini, so one assumes the producers knew what they were getting. He's all right when he stays in the confines of Beverly Hills boutiques and boudoirs, but completely ham-handed when the film strays outside these cushy confines. The courtroom scenes feature that predictable, abysmal staple of Hollywood films: the black female judge presiding over things like an angrier yet still maternally clucking Hattie McDaniel. She's the only minority present, except for numerous, anonymous Asian extras who are sprinkled about the campus like literal human set dressing for brainy verisimilitude. There's a clichd, over-serious lesbian student, as well, who's also mean to our Elle, and helpfully proves that gays can be just as bitchily small-minded as anyone else.

Witherspoon does what she can and manages to be charming throughout, although Elle's character is conceived as almost depressingly upbeat and chipper, whatever the circumstances. (A mere manicure is always enough to lift her from any suicidal angst.) Wilson should learn to make more careful career choices, lest his Jimmy Stewart aw-shucks normality imprison him in that ho-hum, female star-doormat terrain, where Bill Pullman, John Heard and Tom Skerritt have all served time. These poor guys always seem to get the dumbest expositional lines to deliver ("Now, let's see what we can do about this situation..." [fade]). Davis has the right handsome unctuousness, even when forced to address Elle as 'Pooh Bear' (the dialogue's like that). Sprightly actresses Alanna Ubach and Jessica Cauffiel are wasted as Elle's bimbo sidekicks ('Road trip! Makeover!!'). Jennifer Coolidge brings her bizarrely B-movie, punched-in-the-face ingratiation to the role of a dippy manicurist who befriends Elle. The high spirits of a Toni Basil-choreographed beauty-parlor scene of Elle empowering the clients with a suggestive series of poses feels rote in the extreme. And, looking unmistakably like Coolidge's more tightly pulled sister, Raquel Welch appears in a cameo.

--David Noh