Trash or Treasure?: Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Legally Blonde 2, Swimming Pool

After the ludicrous American Pie 2 came out two summers ago and reaffirmed everything I hated about cash-in sequels, I vowed to stay away from them. The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter films aren’t exactly cash-ins, since they’re part of a grand series. But really, are sequels all that necessary in most cases? I remember sitting through Nutty Professor 2 and thinking, “Wow, everything that was appealing and funny in the first film is just crass and crap (amidst all the endless fart jokes).”

While the forthcoming American Wedding has no place on my list of must-see movies, I have to admit to going to Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and Legally Blonde 2 on their respective opening weekends. And the former film is the best guilty pleasure I’ve seen since Charlie’s Angels itself. I marvel at how much that film and its sequel polarize critics to a degree that only the likes of the mid-90’s Brady Bunch movies have seen. Of course, the Angels movies are stupid, dunderheaded trash. But their saving grace is that they don’t take themselves seriously at all (except when still-overrated ice queen Demi Moore takes center stage); for all the plot twists and glossy action sequences, Full Throttle is breezy, snappy (if calculated) fun, a keen way to give two hours of your life over to a rarely better Drew and Cameron; even Lucy Liu shows some personality this time around (especially in conversation with the incomparable John Cleese as her father (!)). A boisterous Bernie Mack is no Bosley substitute for the laid-back deadpan Bill Murray brought to the first film, and Justin Theroux’s Irish gangster villain is a little too cardboard remote. But, despite Demi’s Joan Crawford-worthy shoot-the-intercom debacle, Full Throttle’s never overwrought or tedious. It’s a fun ride that delivers all the necessary thrills, even if you won’t remember half of ‘em the next day.

Legally Blonde 2 is equally dunderheaded, and less forgivable. Whereas the Angels movies feel like supersized, upgraded installments of the TV series, the original Legally Blonde felt like a weak gag stretched out to feature film length and made bearable and likable by its talented, charismatic star. An unexpected hit, so how about a cash-in sequel that stretches the concept to its absolute breaking point? You won’t believe a single scene of this animal rights, goin’ to Washington DC fantasy in which every single strand is simply a variation of the first film’s formula. But you will enjoy a genuinely funny pet-sexuality gag, a surreal, satirical sorority house scene, lots of fabulous outfits, and Reese Witherspoon’s undeniable charm and presence, which again makes all the utter silliness tolerable. Plus, it’s difficult to hate a film where an aged but still deft Bob Newhart leaves a lasting impression as a hotel doorman/dogwalker. I doubt there’s much left we don’t know about Elle that’ll even make the most diehard fan anticipate or expect another sequel. However, I once thought the same about American Pie 2, so I’m not placing any bets.

Swimming Pool, the latest feature from French auteur Francois Ozon, is a decidedly classier, more cerebral sort of trash. It has less immediate thrills, but it’s still entertaining and sly. Charlotte Rampling stars as a successful British crime fiction author. A rather unpleasant old maid, she retreats from London to her publisher’s French country home to seek solitude for writing her next book. All goes well until the surprise arrival of the publisher’s equally ornery, sexually promiscuous, twenty year old daughter (played by Ludivine Sagnier in a nearly 180 degree turn from her last role in Ozon’s 8 Women). Both women immediately get on each other’s nerves until Rampling puts aside her latest piece and starts writing in secret about Sagnier’s sexploits. Executed with the precision, wit, and lucidity of a better-than-average Hitchcock thriller, Swimming Pool doesn’t have as powerful an impact as Ozon’s eerie, elegant Under The Sand. Rampling was brilliant in that film as a woman who calmly refused to believe her lost husband was dead. She’s nearly as good here in a far more comedic role; her character is a rather miserable protagonist, but she pulls it off without turning her into a monster, throwing wicked, silver-tongued barbs at everyone (including herself). Sagnier is an appropriate younger foil, and she seems more interesting as what we know (and still do not know) about her character fluctuates. Swimming Pool has much more meat to it than the fun if frothy 8 Women, but what makes it worth seeing a second time is a stimulating twist of an ending that’s employed quite subtly. Instead of hitting you on the noggin, it seeps in ever-so-slowly to the point where it saturates your memories of the film and is thus unshakable.