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The Dark Side of Perk

From ‘Election’ to ‘Legally Blonde,’ Reese Witherspoon made her name in a run of popular comedies that played on her likable bubbliness and plucky neuroticism — women who are, at heart, afraid of not being good enough. Even as her career has turned to drama, the essence of Witherspoon’s comedic talent remains.

(MGM/Ringer illustration)
(MGM/Ringer illustration)

In honor of Reese Witherspoon’s transcendent work on Big Little Lies, we at The Ringer hereby declare today Reese Day. Please join us as we pay tribute to the Patron Saint of Book Clubs, Wine Clubs, and Overachievers.

In Hot Pursuit (2015), Reese Witherspoon plays Officer Cooper, a straight-edge cop who’s so by-the-books, or at least tries to be, that she’s practically the precinct librarian. She’s the daughter of one of the most celebrated cops in San Antonio history, but she herself is a bit of a klutz. Her name has become so synonymous with screwups that she’s been relegated to guarding the evidence locker. Cooper is notorious throughout the force for “The Shotgun Incident,” that time she overheard a college kid call shotgun — as in, front seat — and, hearing only the word “shotgun,” tased the kid’s flask and set him on fire. She’s a classic screwball: a verb, even — to “cooper,” in the movie, is to fuck up — and everything else in Hot Pursuit hinges on that.

I could see Cooper being played by Amy Poehler, who, thanks to Parks and Recreation, strikes me as a good choice for a character who’s small and municipal and also a little goofy. What Witherspoon brings to the role, however, is a sense of history. Cooper is an archetypal Witherspoon character, in comedies anyway. Like every major Witherspoon comedy heroine, from Elle Woods (Legally Blonde) to Tracy Flick (Election), she’s whip-smart; and like all of those heroines, she’s fatefully underestimated. The plot of Hot Pursuit depends on Cooper being comically bad at her job, like a modern Lucille Ball: sweet, well-intentioned, but, oy, what a mess. That’s how the bad guys take advantage. For Witherspoon, the outright clumsiness is new, actually: Tracy Flick, in particular, is in part defined by a certain degree of steel-strength unfuckwithability. Witherspoon’s comedic heroines are known for their pluck. Despite that difference, even Cooper manages to get what she wants — all the best Witherspoon heroines do.

Flick, Woods, and Reese’s other major comedy or dramedy roles of the ’90s and early aughts — Melanie Smooter of Sweet Home Alabama, Jennifer of Pleasantville — are all variations on the American Sweetheart. They are blond, bubbly, pretty little misses, and often Southerners. (Witherspoon herself was largely raised in Tennessee.) Since 1998, in Pleasantville, she’s been gradually eroding that concept from the inside out, giving us characters who’ve collectively revealed the dark side of perk. One of the many wonders of Witherspoon’s great comic performances is how, despite seemingly vast differences, these women all seem to be cut from the same cloth.

Witherspoon plays women that movies and their audiences typically underestimate and, treading a fine line between sympathy and parody, finds warmth, life, and jagged edges where before there were only stereotypes. Her comedic specialty is the frenzied do-gooder who defies the odds. Her performances always deform that idea slightly. The admirably ruthless, bubbly Tracy Flick is a wolf in do-gooder’s clothing; Jennifer, of Pleasantville, is the moral opposite of the ’50s TV priss she’s forced to embody in the fictional town of Pleasantville. Jennifer, a cigarette-smoking “cool girl” before she’s transported to a sanitized television show, would never talk to a girl like Tracy Flick. But boiled down to their essences, Witherspoon comic heroines are women who are, at heart, afraid of not being good enough. This is as true of Election as it is today, on Big Little Lies.

Witherspoon is one of the funniest actresses of our time. But what do we want from Reese Witherspoon, as a comedienne, in 2017? Bad movies starring great actors are often a chance to take stock of what an actor means to the industry. It’s a chance to see their personas stripped down to their most basic, pliable definition — hence Witherspoon in a movie like Hot Pursuit, which clearly understands her comedic appeal and typecasts her accordingly, but doesn’t know what to do with all that energy. Who does?

Witherspoon hasn’t been a real force in American comedies since 2002, with the hit rom-com Sweet Home Alabama. There’ve been others since then — Hot Pursuit is one example, James L. Brooks’s How Do You Know (2010) is another. Neither is a slam dunk — neither quite figures out how to make sense of Witherspoon’s style, which can be bent any which way, from squirrelly neuroticism to froth-mouthed rage to dangerously cute, but genuine, bubbliness. That’s what sustained her in 1998, in Pleasantville, and again in 1999, with Election, and again for the one-two of Legally Blonde and Sweet Home Alabama, in 2001 and 2002.

Witherspoon’s comedic appeal is in her petite size, her voice (which gets deeper, I’ve noticed, as her characters get crazier), and her mannerisms. Perhaps most of all, it’s her face. One of the funniest gags in Election is a freeze-frame on her face mid-sentence, her mouth and chin contorted with smarm as her teacher, played by Matthew Broderick, rails on in a voice-over about what a demon she is. She looks like she’s slurping a noodle sideways. Later in the movie, her chipper expectations of victory are all rendered through wide eyes and neat posture. When she famously loses her shit, tearing an opponent’s posters down in a fit of anarchy, she practically bounces off the walls. Tracy Flick is the hot whistle of steam shot out by a kettle. She’s a coiled-up little ball of energy. Election is a movie designed to give that energy a hilariously destructive release. The essence of Witherspoon’s comedy is her constant plays on her likability, a pointed subject for women like Flick, Smooter, and Woods, who have power, or want it. No one tinges sweetness with quite as much frenzy as Witherspoon in a film like Election: Tracy Flick doesn’t offer you a cupcake so much as threaten you with it.

(MGM)
(MGM)

Elle in Legally Blonde, on the other hand, doesn’t have a destructive bone in her body. The sense of poise is still here: Witherspoon gives the performance an elevated sense of pageantry. How Elle walks, talks, stands, looks, and sounds are all a matter of deliberate self-making. She isn’t simply bubbly so much as she’s a bubble factory. Her character is, after all, a loud, proud fashion major and sorority girl whose life seemingly flutters by as a series of parties and outfits. Her smile is broad, her excitement is ostentatious. She belongs onstage with Miss California. Even Tracy Flick, who’d likely rather run the pageant than be in it, is a character brought to life by the exaggerated sense of excitement, and performance, that pageantry is known for.

Witherspoon manages to give us an Elle completely free of condescension. It’s a performance that recalls the warm sympathy of Alicia Silverstone in Clueless (one of the very best comedic performances of the ’90s, alongside Witherspoon in Election). Movies are typically built to make these characters exist as only stupid or vapid. “If I’m going to be a senator,” Elle’s college boyfriend Warner tells her while dumping her, “well I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.” “So you’re breaking up with me because I’m too … blond?” Elle asks. When the answer is no, she goes, “Then what, my boobs are too big?” Witherspoon performs it all as a parade of hilariously unpleasant shrieks as loud as her hot-pink wardrobe. Later, stomping home, she squeaks and mumbles with every step. A chagrined, enraged Lucille Ball again comes to mind — but, like, pinker.

Lately, Witherspoon has found more success instilling her comedy with heavy doses of drama. Outright comedy doesn’t seem to suit her anymore — or maybe, as Hot Pursuit indicates, movie comedy doesn’t know what to do with her. But it’s there in drama — her Oscar-winning role as June Carter in Walk the Line is one example, and her current work on Big Little Lies, the HBO drama directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed Witherspoon in the comparatively humorless Wild, is another. It’s there in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014), too, which stands out for being an especially clever vision of what some of Witherspoon’s trademark early work might look like today. In Anderson’s film, adapted from the Thomas Pynchon novel, she plays Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball, the sometime fling of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). It’s a movie set in California in 1970; she’s the smart, uptight, establishment professional to his loose-ended stoner hippie — or she seems to be, until the movie shows her letting her hair down at Doc’s place to smoke weed, have sex, and watch TV. It’s that old Reese dichotomy, again, uptight by day and defanged by night.

It’s her old comic persona calling back, having caught up with the times. Witherspoon slips back into it effortlessly, but less chaotically than in previous manifestations. She’s a Tracy Flick who’s been sapped of her childhood energy and is instead an older but ever-fastidious working woman set in a time when being a “professional” was a political choice, and not only a social one. It’s a beautiful turn, however brief — she appears in only a few scenes. Witherspoon brings sarcastic affection to Kimball’s interactions with Sportello, with whom she really shouldn’t be seen — he’s a dirty hippie! — but of whom she’s undeniably fond. In their best scene together, you can’t even see Witherspoon: She’s a voice on the phone. It’s a booty call. Neil Young’s “Harvest” is playing. Doc tries to get her to come over. Kimball asks, “What would a nice clean girl like me do with you?” Doc suggests she wash his feet. “Ew,” Witherspoon says, edging up to a familiarly prissy hiss. “No thank you.” She comes over anyway.

Inherent Vice doesn’t try to rehash an old joke for comic effect. Though deployed in a movie set decades ago, Witherspoon’s persona is here given a chance to grow up. Hot Pursuit infantilizes her by demanding she play a Tracy Flick who, in 20 years, has not evolved. A role like Penny Kimball, on the other hand, shows curiosity about how the Witherspoon persona looks and sounds now — how she wears her hair, how she manages men. And it does so within a drama, but with light, deliberate touches of comedy. Witherspoon may, for the most part, be a dramatic actress now. Roles like this remind us that it was comedy that got her there.