LOS ANGELES — "This Means War" may not be Reese Witherspoon's finest hour – it's a glossy, noisy, love-triangle-slash-spy-romp – but it's fun and it allows her once again to demonstrate her radiant likability. It also allows us the opportunity to look back at her career and ponder five of her best performances:
_ "Election" (1999): No matter what she does, no matter how many major roles she takes on or Oscars she wins over her career, Witherspoon will always be Tracy Flick to me. And I say that with great affection. The balance she finds here is so delicate and difficult. She's playing an essentially unlikable character: a prim, scheming know-it-all who will do whatever it takes to be voted president of her high school's student government. Adorable and annoying at once, she always seems to be trying too hard to please. But Witherspoon finds the loneliness and vulnerability in Tracy, and makes us ultimately sympathize with her.
_ "Walk the Line" (2005): In theory this is Joaquin Phoenix's movie, because he's the one playing Johnny Cash. Then along comes Witherspoon as Cash's lifelong love, June Carter, and she pretty much steals the movie right out from underneath him. This isn't a knock on Phoenix, who's extraordinary in capturing the energy and essence of a towering American cultural figure. Witherspoon, though, just takes over the entire screen, and when she's gone, you want her to come back. This was the first truly grown-up, womanly role she'd played at this point, and she got to be not just an engaging on-stage performer (she also sang and played the harpsichord) but also a wife, mother, caretaker and no-nonsense family backbone. Oh, and the performance earned her the Academy Award for best actress.
_ "Legally Blonde" (2001): As a perky blonde sorority girl myself, I initially mistook this for a documentary. That's how convincing Witherspoon is as the ebullient Elle Woods, a pampered campus princess who finds her true voice in the unlikeliest of places: Harvard Law School. She is just irresistible here in the classic ditzy-blonde mode, a perfectly coifed, pink-clad force of nature, and her charm and conviction make the fish-out-of-water antics work. As the saying goes, you have to be pretty smart to play dumb. In that regard, Witherspoon proved she must be brilliant. (Everyone involved should have quit while they were ahead, though, and said no to "Legally Blonde 2: Red White & Blonde.")
_ "Freeway" (1996): Witherspoon did some of her most challenging work in her youth, and this darkly funny, twisted take on the "Little Red Riding Hood" fairy tale is a prime example. She stars as Vanessa, a trashy teenager who ends up hitching a ride with a youth counselor named Bob (Kiefer Sutherland) in hopes of finding her grandmother. She opens up to him but eventually realizes he's a serial killer. High-spirited and foul-mouthed, she ultimately turns the tables on him, and the sight of Witherspoon pistol-whipping and berating Sutherland in her girlish Southern twang is a hoot.
_ "Pleasantville" (1998): In a large and esteemed ensemble cast that features Tobey Maguire, William H. Macy and Joan Allen, Witherspoon just shines. She uses her comic timing to great effect here as a sassy and subversive teenager who gets unwittingly sucked into the television set with her twin brother (Maguire) and finds herself in the idyllic, fictional 1950s town of Pleasantville. Gary Ross' high-concept directorial debut finds its characters transforming and literally becoming more colorful, more complicated, and a lot of that has to do with Witherspoon's character's inability to keep her mouth shut. Everyone's better for it – especially the audience.