Tuesday, July 1, 2003 at 1:00am

The most compelling creature on movie screens this summer is neither a green comic book character nor a trio of sexy, karate-chopping private eyes.

No, it's a blond, brainy woman lawyer named Elle Woods. She's the ditzy but far from Clueless heroine of Legally Blonde 2, flawlessly brought to life from the soles of her Jimmy Choos to the tip of her pink Jackie Kennedy pillbox hat by Reese Witherspoon. This self-described "simple small-town girl from Bel Air" kicks more deserving-to-be-kicked butt in her high heels than The Hulk, The Terminator and Charlie's Angels combined. And she does it by harnessing one of the greatest - and most underused - forces in the universe: people power.

Working as a legislative aide in Washington, Elle is convinced that "doing the right thing is in everybody's best interest." She initially tries to operate within the Washington system - only to discover just how broken that system really is. I cheered Elle on when she confronts one backroom-dealing member of Congress played by Sally Fields: "That's all just deals and trades and secrets. That's not what people want."

And my heart went out to her when, disillusioned, she makes a late-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial. Despite its corniness, it's a powerful moment - much the way that Jimmy Stewart taking in Washington's monuments from a tour bus in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington can still put a lump in your throat.

Unfortunately, things in D.C. have only gotten worse since that 1939 populist classic. So bad, in fact, that even a politician as pure as Stewart's Jefferson Smith couldn't make much of a difference in today's political quagmire. The initiative for change now must come from outside the system - something Elle eventually realizes. "I'm here to speak for those who can't speak for themselves," she says.

A frothy comedy is an unexpected place to find a clarion call to movement building. And it's this very unexpectedness that gives the movie its impact.

When Elle announces, "I believe in the people," the cynical congresswoman replies: "The people believe what you tell them to believe. You can't get the people to care." But Elle is undaunted: "Watch me."

Elle teaches modern-day activists a valuable lesson: Use the system to defeat the system. Her weapon of choice is a rarely used legislative maneuver - the discharge petition. As screenwriter Kate Kondell, a 30-year-old Stanford grad, told me: "We are hoping that Legally Blonde 2 will do for the discharge petition what Mr. Smith did for the filibuster."

Elle's efforts culminate with a rousing speech in front of a joint session of Congress: "I learned that one honest voice can be louder than a crowd's. So speak up, America. Speak up for the home of the brave. Speak up for the land of the free gift with purchase. Speak up, America!"

Sitting between my teen-age daughters while watching Elle take on the U.S. Congress, I was struck by the palpable effect it had on them: They left the theater inspired, empowered, and talking about the things they wanted to change and the ways they might be able to change them.

Most studio executives blanch at the mere mention of making a movie with a message, often invoking the old showbiz adage, "If you wanna send a message, call Western Union." But as MGM's Chris McGurk told me, "Sometimes the stars line up, and you can produce a movie that is both very entertaining and delivers a powerful message."

Besides, adds Kondell, "As Elle will tell you, anything is more palatable if you dress it up in pink."

Critic Kenneth Tynan once famously said of a John Osborne play: "I doubt if I could love anybody who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger." Well, I doubt if I could love anybody who isn't tickled pink by Legally Blonde 2.

Arianna Huffington is a syndicated columnist.

Filed under: City Voices