Reese Witherspoon's Sad, Swift Descent Into Boringness

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Her bland role in This Means War raises the question: What happened to the actress who played Tracy Flick and June Carter?

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20th Century Fox

For a while, Reese Witherspoon was really good at a making unlikeable characters likeable. In Legally Blonde, she played ditzy sorority girl Elle Woods—the type of character who's usually a punchline—and managed to transform her into an icon of female empowerment. In Walk the Line, she was June Carter, the other woman to a married Johnny Cash, and somehow she came off as more sympathetic than Cash's long-suffering, always-pregnant wife.

And, of course, before Elle and June, there was Tracy Flick, the insufferable heroine of Election. Tracy is the girl that everyone in high school hates: a prissy, uptight teacher's pet who dots her "i"s with stars and always has the right answer. Witherspoon's performance highlighted Tracy's detestable qualities—her vindictiveness, her arrogance—but it did not ignore her redeeming ones. Tracy is very, very smart, and she's aware of the world outside the Omaha suburbs in ways that her classmates aren't. The most poignant scenes in Election show Tracy wrestling with the deep loneliness of being a bright, ambitious girl in a small town.

Her 'This Means War' character's interests are a parody of boringness: animals, classic rock, red wine, and bath salts.

It was these sorts of roles that made movie audiences fall in love with Reese. Witherspoon herself is a type of woman who sometimes has trouble getting people to like her: blonde, pretty, perky, talented in all sorts of ways (besides being a gifted actress, she's also smart—she went to Stanford for a year before committing to acting full time), she could inspire jealousy rather than adoration. She married young, to the cutest guy in the high school that is Hollywood, and though they divorced after seven years, their breakup only confirmed her relentless perfection. She lost weight, dated the new cutest guy in Hollywood for a year or so, and then married a very handsome non-actor who promised her, "I'm going to take care of you. I'm going to do it so much that you're going get used to it." Yet somehow, despite her infuriatingly charmed life, Witherspoon became one of Hollywood's most beloved actresses. In 2007, she topped a list of most likeable celebrities.

But then, a few years ago (right around 2007, actually), something changed, and Witherspoon started playing a different type of character, one who's perfectly unobjectionable but deeply, deeply boring. In Four Christmases her marriage-averse San Francisco career woman Kate is just window dressing for a cast of much more colorful characters: the manic Vince Vaughn, the sparkling Kristen Chenoweth. In How Do You Know, playing Lisa, a professional softball player (!?) who plunges into an identity crisis after being cut from the national team, Witherspoon was outshone again, this time by her hilariously self-absorbed suitor, Owen Wilson. Water For Elephants offered more of the same. Her Marlena, a circus performer, was upstaged by the man (Robert Pattinson) who swoops in to save her character from an unhappy marriage.

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And now, she's Lauren in This Means War, a mediocre action-romance that opens today. Lauren is an LA-based product reviewer dating two CIA agents who are also best friends (which she doesn't know, of course—she thinks they're a travel agent and a cruise-ship caption, and assumes they're strangers). Setting aside the huge suspension of disbelief that's required to watch this movie (Patriot Act notwithstanding, there's no way the CIA would allow agents to spy on a woman they're dating), This Means War's most frustrating flaw is Lauren's lack of personality. In one scene, the agents are briefed on Lauren's likes and dislikes, and it reads like a parody of boringness: She likes animals, classic rock (no specific band names or song titles are mentioned—just the vast, vast category that is "classic rock"), red wine, bath salts, and paintings by Gustav Klimt. This woman, who's so desirable that two men are stretching the bounds of the law to pursue her, has the same tastes as a college freshman. The rest of the movie is no help in filling out her character. She spends most of the film acting out various romantic-comedy cliches: She runs into an old boyfriend in her workout clothes; she orders "sushi for one" so often the guys at the Japanese restaurant know her by name; she dances around half-naked while listening to "This Is How We Do It" and making microwave popcorn.

What happened? How did Witherspoon go from the refreshing exuberance of Tracy Flick and Elle Woods to the limp dullness of Lauren Collins and Lisa Jorgenson? Part of the answer may lie in a poignant quote from an interview she did with Vogue in 2008, not long after she finalized her divorce from Ryan Phillippe:

Comedy is what I want to see at the movies these days. Life is frickin' hard, man. I want to go to the movies and see people happy and enjoying themselves and having some fun. I've made other kinds of movies, for sure. But it's pretty apparent to me that's what people want. That's what I want. I enjoy those kinds of movies.

It's not hard to read between the lines here: Witherspoon went through a painful, public divorce, and now all she wants to do is laugh. Fair enough. And indeed, with the exception of the troubled Marlena in Water for Elephants, Witherspoon's recent characters have been happy—neurotic, maybe, but happy. Many of these women have found themselves in a situation that must seem appealing to a recent divorcee: being fought over by two attractive men. So maybe Witherspoon is valuing happy characters (with happy endings) over interesting ones as she selects her movie roles.

But she this isn't a sacrifice she actually has to make. Happiness and interestingness can exist in the same character. Textured, unconventionally winsome roles do exist for women, and not just in dark movies: Think of Anne Hathaway's prickly, sex-obsessed Parkinson's patient in the dramedy Love and Other Drugs, or most of the parts Rachel McAdams has played in the past few years (in particular the bitchy Inez in Midnight in Paris and the sweetly spastic Becky in Morning Glory—both comedies). And that's not even getting into the explosion of female comedy parts that Bridesmaids ignited.

And it's not clear audiences really do want to see Witherspoon in her newly bland onscreen persona. Four Christmases was a modest hit, but both Water For Elephants and How Do You Know flopped, and This Means War has a sad 24 rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The people want Elle Woods, not Lauren Collins. Soon, hopefully, that spunky Witherspoon will come back to us. In the meantime, Election is available on Amazon instant video.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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