- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Reese Witherspoon has been called America’s Sweetheart for a reason. (Even if she doesn’t agree with it.) She’s sunshine and goodness, a cheerleader beauty queen with a heart of gold. But she’s got spitfire in her too—that Southern spirit makes her charming but also a little dangerous.
It comes out in her best work. In Election, she was as irrepressible as she was fearsome. In Walk the Line, she struck the perfect balance between ladylike and lady boss (and won an Oscar for it). In Vanity Fair, she was a social climber; in Wild, a literal climber (well, hiker). In her current incarnation as a powerhouse star and producer of prestige television, she’s a little more hardened but also more inspirational. The message of a Reese Witherspoon character is always this: You simply cannot keep the gal down.
That cheerful tenacity also makes Witherspoon a great leading lady for romantic comedies. Like fellow rom-com queens Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Sandra Bullock, and Meg Ryan, Witherspoon can play it innocent when she needs to and sassy when she wants to. Always likable, but sharp enough to believably kick ass at work, home, love, whatever.
One thing that makes movies of the Witherspoon rom-com canon stand out, however, is that they tend to have some other element mixed in, be they action-comedy hybrids or quasi-gimmicky holiday fare. Straight-up romantic comedies were a little out of style by the time Witherspoon hit the scene, but that also makes sense for the actor herself. Try to picture Witherspoon sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, or even just relaxing at the spa. You can’t. Now picture her with a newspaper in one hand and a drink in the other—she’s going to read out the headlines or splash that cocktail in someone’s face. Or both.
This mixing of genres also means that even when her romantic comedies aren’t great—there are a few stinkers in everyone’s career, sorry—they’re never boring. And Witherspoon, to her absolute credit, never gives less than a 100% commitment to a part. She’s always doing her best to make the material work. When it clicks, it really clicks. So put on your Draper James wrap dress and pour yourself a whiskey in a teacup, because it’s time to rank the romantic comedies of Reese Witherspoon.
Home Again (2017)
This movie made so little impression on me that I barely remember the plot, but here’s what I think happens: Reese Witherspoon plays the daughter of a famous, now deceased, Hollywood screenwriter (producer?), and she and her kids (two daughters?) live in a beautiful house somewhere in or around Los Angeles, and the kitchen is especially beautiful because this movie was directed by Nancy Meyers’s daughter, Hallie Meyers-Shyer. Reese is, I think, divorced, and two (maybe three?) young guys in their 20s who want to be screenwriters come to live at her house. She flirts a bunch with one of them. By the end, one of her kids has performed some original story in a talent show, maybe, and afterward they all have a big family dinner in the backyard. She reconciles with her ex-husband, or something. Anyway, this movie is boring and even the charm of Reese Witherspoon can’t save it.
This Means War (2012)
If you were to just watch certain scenes from This Means War, you might think it was a fun, featherweight action romantic comedy about two best-friend CIA agents (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, both so cute) who fall in love with the same woman. But actually it’s a completely nonsensical, borderline-psychotic battle between two CIA agents who lie to, gaslight, and spy on a woman while they essentially use her as the ruler in their dick-measuring contest. They bug her house, spy on her with thermal binoculars, and put a tracking device on her phone. Not only that, the guy she ends up choosing is straight-up mean to her at the beginning of their relationship. It’s not flirty banter or opposites attracting—he’s just a dick. And Pine’s character’s name is FDR. People call him that: FDR. Bewildering.
How Do You Know (2010)
This movie is not good by any stretch, but it’s sort of an interesting mess for those of us who have seen enough romantic comedies to know how they are supposed to go—or at least, how they usually go. They are, usually, about flawed but charming people looking for love and fulfillment and either finding it or losing it and learning something along the way. Not so with How Do You Know. Instead, Reese Witherspoon plays a former softball player who drifts aimlessly in and out of relationships with Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd while Jack Nicholson commits some kind of investment fraud and tries to get his son to take the blame for it. It’s like if the movie Wall Street were reengineered so that the protagonist was neither Bud Fox nor Gordon Gekko but a former softball player named Lisa Jorgenson. In what world is Reese Witherspoon believable as a “Lisa,” let alone a “Lisa Jorgenson”?
A baby girl is born to an aristocratic family that, thanks to a long-ago wrongdoing, is cursed so that the infant has a pig nose. Will she find love? Acceptance? Happiness? A new nose? Spoiler: Yes to all of the above! Though the plot itself is overly complicated, there are some winning moments and charming performances in this movie, not to mention a much-needed message, and the title character of Penelope is perfect for someone like Witherspoon. Problem is, it’s played by Christina Ricci. Ricci totally makes it work, I have zero issue with her acting in this or any other movie, but the glowing dynamo of Witherspoon gets shoved to the side and instead plays…some chick at a bar who shows the princess how to live among the people. It’s a waste in a movie that wasn’t spectacular to begin with.
Four Christmases (2008)
It’s like the title says, friends: four Christmases. Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn play a long-term couple wary of marriage because both of their parental sets have split. Conveniently, though, they all live in California, hence the challenge of hitting four separate celebrations over the course of Christmas Day. It’s not a laugh riot, but on a personal note, as the daughter of divorced parents who get along and split custody during my childhood, I appreciate that this movie shows the holidays being less a time for emotional catharsis and more a logistical headache. Been there.
Sweet Home Alabama (2002)
I struggled with the decision to keep this movie out of the top three. I know a lot of people like it, and it was a huge, huge hit. But I’m sorry, I was never that into it! Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty to like: Candice Bergen, the proposal scene at Tiffany, Witherspoon’s performance. But the plot has the opposite problem from How Do You Know: It leans way too far into cliché. You can take the girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the girl! Which do you follow, your head or your heart? Career versus love! It’s like every rom-com trope rolled together and set to a Lynyrd Skynyrd song with messy political connotations (though it’s a bop, I’m not an idiot). Fun enough, but not a classic.
Just Like Heaven (2005)
For most romantic comedies, the fun is in the journey so spoilers don’t make a huge difference. But Just Like Heaven is also dramatic and fantastical; if you haven’t seen it, I strongly urge you to stop reading this passage now because the twists and turns this movie takes are heartbreaking, magical, delightful. Oh, you’re still here? Well, fine, have it your way. Here’s the plot: Landscape designer David (Mark Ruffalo), mourning the death of his wife, moves into a new apartment and soon discovers that it’s haunted by doctor Elizabeth (Witherspoon), though she doesn’t realize at first that she is a ghost and refuses to believe she’s dead. Turns out, she isn’t; she’s in a coma. David and Elizabeth fall in love, but Elizabeth is due to be taken off of life support, and then…nope! Not gonna tell you what happens! You have to go watch it. It’ll make you cry, and you will be grateful that I let you discover the ending for yourself.
The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)
A quintessential romantic comedy, a story that helped shape and define the genre. Adapted from the Oscar Wilde play of the same name, this movie has everything a rom-com fan could possibly want: a little farce, a little trickery, a little love triangle, a lot of happy ending. Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, and Reese Witherspoon in a period piece together…and oh, would you look at that, simply from speaking those three names out loud, a glass of chardonnay has appeared in my hand and my mom is on the couch next to me. Hi, Mom, love you, let’s queue it up.
Legally Blonde (2001)
Legally Blonde is not, strictly speaking, a “romantic comedy” film. It’s a courtroom thriller, a coming-of-age story, a testament to the power of friendship, a feminist polemic, an anti-sexual-harassment story, an animal rights film, a campus comedy, and a turn-of-the-millennium fashion tour de force. And sure, it has a romantic subplot that actually sticks closely to the typical beats of the rom-com genre. Elle, though happy and fulfilled by her life as a sorority girl, still wants to prove herself a woman to be taken seriously, and the catalyst for her journey of self-discovery is an attempt to win back her handsome, rich ex, Warner. But like any good rom-com heroine, she discovers that the man who is truly her equal is the humble and supportive TA, Emmet. Once she learns to believe in herself—and her mind (she exonerates an innocent aerobics guru falsely accused of murder!)—she can accept his love and start a much healthier relationship. This is, by the way, why the sequel is not on this list: Her relationship with Emmet is already intact, ipso facto, not a rom-com.
Best of all, tucked within Legally Blonde is a story that is a full-on utter and complete romantic comedy: the tale of Paulette. She ditches her shabby ex, learns to arch her back, and bangs her hot delivery guy. There’s a reason why it’s also a beloved musical, and why it’s getting another installment written by Mindy Kaling. An absolute masterwork.
Elizabeth Logan is a writer and comedian in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @lizzzzzielogan.
Originally Appeared on Glamour