Legally Blonde
dir. Robert Luketic
Opens Fri July 13 at various theaters.

Reese Witherspoon, whose new movie, Legally Blonde, opens this weekend, has been one of the great surprises of the acting world. Given her super-blonde, President-of-the-Key-Club looks, her marriage to pinup boy Ryan Phillippe, and her appearance on the cover of Cosmopolitan, discussing how tough it is to have it all, you want to write her off. But watching her movies, certain things become annoyingly, and then inspirationally, clear: Her talent is that of seven Drew Barrymores. Her commitment to forgetting who she is when the camera rolls is ferocious. Her career illustrates just how difficult it is to let go of stereotypes. And, put head-to-head with her contemporaries, she is a fucking destroyer.

Early on, there really wasn't much reason to think that she would have this kind of standout talent. Trapped in the Family Channel melodrama of Man in the Moon, or the teenage psycho-silliness of Fear, Witherspoon showed promise, but was hemmed in by the material. After several such roles, however, she turned in her breakout performance, in a little-recognized masterpiece called Freeway.

An update of the Little Red Riding Hood story, Freeway stars Witherspoon as Vanessa Lutz, a teenage trailer-trash hellion who's got a major anger-management problem, a juvie-hall history, and an Odyssean drive to get from Los Angeles to Stockton to see Grandmother. Along the way, she runs into the Big Bad Wolf, played by Keifer Sutherland, a Jack-the-Ripper type who spends his time two ways: scouring the racks for child pornography, and scouring the Evil Forest, played by the I-5 corridor, for young female hitchhikers. The degree of sexual nastiness into which the two delve is significantly deeper, more disturbing, and more human than most cinema gets. Throughout this, Witherspoon dazzles with her complete commitment to rage. There is no daylight in Vanessa, and Witherspoon mines the darkness to find the aphorisms scrawled on the wall of her soul, the directions inward into self-protection. By the second half of the movie, the viewer is rapt with terror at her feral magnetism. You know that if you took your eyes off her, she'd jump off the screen and scratch them out. It's an amazing performance.

Another role that illustrates the widening breadth of Witherspoon's range is her small, memorable turn in American Psycho as Evelyn, the ecstatically materialistic girlfriend of Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman and a regular Reaganite Sugar Plum Fairy. Her coked-up, hip-to-be-square, cheery-as-a-bee-in-spring obliviousness to her boyfriend's growing insanity shows off quite a bit of comic discipline. What's most memorable is the sympathy she brings to this dingbat, and the way she holds her own with Bale, matching his goofball freakishness with her own amphetamine cartoon madness. Watching their repartee is a master class in ignoring your beauty and charm in the pursuit of achieving real grotesquery.

Of course, the role that Witherspoon is best known for is that of Tracy Flick, the burningly ambitious high-school senior of Election. Her duel for schoolwide dominance with the sad-sack Jim McAllister, played by Matthew Broderick, is one of the great cat-and-mouse dynamics of modern film. And though Election is not her finest hour (that honor would have to go to Freeway), the ease with which she brings pathos to this power-mad Stepford child is key in understanding the focal point of Witherspoon's talents. The look across Tracy's face when she has apparently lost her bid for student council president throws the viewer's sympathies into an uncomfortable doubt. After spending the whole movie smugly waiting for her demise, there is the sudden wish to take it all back, that no, really, the whole time you were rooting for her! Honest! We love you, Tracy! You know that you'll be back to hating her by the end of the next scene, but that's fine. Like Humbert Humbert, the Reverend Harry Powell, and Baby Jane Hudson before her, Tracy Flick is a real and lasting contribution to the cinematic understanding of the villain, and the feather in Witherspoon's cap.

In Legally Blonde, Witherspoon plays a Southern California Barbie doll named Elle Woods. Elle possesses charming, asexual, lobotomized good cheer and an encyclopedic knowledge of shoes and hemlines. When her boyfriend dumps her (she's "not serious enough"), she decides to win him back by attending Harvard Law School, getting in even though her brain operates, with the savantish exception of matters of fashion, at the level of a 10-year-old.

Legally Blonde is Witherspoon's show. She's committed and bizarre and fantastic, elevating the film's mediocrity into an enjoyably breezy farce without apparent effort. Her performance is a taunt to her contemporaries. And justifiably: No other actress of her generation could make Elle seem genuine, and none of them could take so much cinematic dross and spin it into silk. The fire of Witherspoon's talents should make them cower in fear.