Sweet Home Alabama
Director: Andy Tennant. Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Josh Lucas, Patrick Dempsey, Ethan Embry, Candice Bergin, Mary Kay Place, Fred Ward, Jean Smart, Melanie Lynskey, Dakota Fanning, Nathan Lee Graham. Screenplay: C. Jay Cox (story by Douglas J. Eboch).

Sweet Home Alabama can't make choices, which is sometimes a good thing, but more often isn't. Let's first accentuate the positive. In telling the would-be larkish story of fashion designer Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon) and her competing romantic commitments to Andrew Hennings (Patrick Dempsey), the upscale, dashing son of the mayor of New York City, and Jake Perry (Josh Lucas), the hardy, dashing quarterback sweetheart she abandoned in a tearful huff seven years ago, Sweet Home Alabama refuses to make either fellow a jerk, a bully, a viper, or a control freak. It is all too often that Hollywood movies about amorous "choice" seal the deal by disqualifying one of the contenders—or even, as Kissing Jessica Stein reminds us, by pre-empting an entire gender (not because they're men, but because they sneeze, wear silk, use calculators). The eventual union in "romances" like these isn't with Mr. or Ms. Right, it's just a thank-goodness escape from legions of obvious Mr. and Ms. Wrongs. By contrast, Sweet Home Alabama refreshingly allows both Andrew and Jake to be reasonably charming, sincere, and well-intentioned, and in fact, when one or the other slips into recognizably human lapses of compassion or judgment, they swiftly recoup these errors and avoid being branded Permanently Unfit. They are for the most part, albeit in their own ways, graceful to a fault.

That fault is named Melanie, and Sweet Home Alabama makes clear early on that she has no one but herself to blame for her conundrums. She is skittish about promises and responsibility, and she seems immediately suspicious of happiness—to include the happiness of others, which she often works by reflex to dismantle. And so she leaves not just Jake, her teenaged husband, but her parents (Mary Kay Place and Fred Ward), her friends (including Ethan Embry and—she's back!—Heavenly Creatures' Melanie Lynskey), and all of her acquaintances in Pigeon Creek, Alabama, without a word. That's all way before the movie begins, but then again it isn't, because the proper plot commences with a virtual duplication of the same gesture, just geographically reversed. After Andrew proposes marriage in a gaga and surreptitiously tawdry sequence in Tiffany's (from the get go, the wedding ring symbolizes something Melanie gets to choose, not something she feels or welcomes), she hikes back to Alabama to "clear up some issues from her past"—by herself, for an indefinite period, with no specifics provided. This is not a leave-a-forwarding address kind of girl.

If all of this seems redolent of My Best Friend's Wedding, the twinship cannot be accidental. Substitute Reese's fashion designer for Julia's food critic—both modish, epicurean, vaguely haughty vocations designed to introduce a lady to all the most glamorous people, mostly get what she wants, and still call it "work." Josh Lucas is an even dreamier and more relaxed emblem of male hunkdom than Dermot Mulroney, and to boot is well-coordinated to Reese's light complexion, like a really great accessory. Patrick Dempsey exists in the Cameron Diaz part of the surprisingly sympathetic rival-heir, and midfilm revelations about Embry's character confirm that the ghost of Rupert Everett hasn't been banished altogether. (He even gets to exhibit a flair for keeping up appearances when the dizzy, straight heroine has trapped herself in her own false pretenses.) My Best Friend's Wedding was one of recent years' most rousing marital comedies, partly because it had enough flesh under its nails that it wasn't precisely a romantic comedy, and so you can't fault Sweet Home's creators in their choice of template.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the honkytonk. Reese Witherspoon is a likable actress, but she doesn't have the Julia-level wattage to keep us interested in Melanie even when she's way past the point of acting nicely. And for all Witherspoon's gifts, in comedies both light (Legally Blonde) and substantive (Election), there's a lurking quality about this actress which suggests an over-great determination to wend her way into our hearts. Which is perhaps why Sweet Home Alabama is bold enough to make Melanie the problem but seems defensive against our blaming her for it. Thus, the circumstances of her leaving Alabama in the first place are dispersed into disjointed fragments of dialogue about teen pregnancy, youthful mistakes, stillbirths, Mother Nature, soul mates, hot clothes, and the need to change your life: it's not that Melanie abandoned her world, but rather some unholy combination of the Earth Mother and Badgley Mischka forced her into it. And Witherspoon wants so much to endear herself that her performance achieves no convincing disregard for the way she's upset, deferred, and disappointed everyone.

The combined resistance toward making Reese or either of her suitors the Bad Guy means that the world itself inherits that blame. Alabama—which isn't really Alabama, since the film was shot in Georgia—is seen as crass, tasteless, and vivaciously confederate, the kind of place where you don't judge a mother for bringing her baby to a bar, because after all, how could these rubes know any better. New York has no greater appeal: it's all commercialism, anonymity. We barely know the names of Reese's friends, and the mayor-cum-mother-in-law played by Candice Bergin is the one characterization allowed to leapfrog right into cruel caricature. So what we've got is a movie about a spoiled but saucer-eyed ingenue torn between two likable beaus who unfortunately reside in cretinous places, so that everyone has to stand around wondering what in the world to do. My friends Amber and Kim with whom I saw the movie observed the disingenuous character of a film called Sweet Home Alabama that betrays no visible evidence of even liking Alabama. Stingy in his images of the food, landscapes, landmarks, and recreations that might potentially animate the environment, director Andy Tennant gives us little to admire in the South except, furtively, the abs of Josh Lucas and, bizarrely, the craft of glass-blowing—so repeatedly described as the miraculous contact between lightning and sand that you'd think you were watching a Discovery Channel program about Phoenicians.

Another friend, Andy, marveled at the recurrence with which Sweet Home Alabama punishes or, just as bad, pities its women for the smallness of their lives (Melanie's mother), the coldness of their success (Andrew's mother), the children they've lost (Melanie), or the children they've been saddled with (Melanie's friend Lurlynn). And rounding out the group, our pal Sarah noticed an odd imbalance between the ghastliness of Melanie's behavior (drunkenly outing her gay friend in a billiards bar) and the alacrity with which these same people bounce back to her aid and defense—perhaps explaining why, for her as for many of us, the most effective scene in Sweet Home Alabama involves Melanie alone, away from all human society, speaking to the tombstone of a dead dog.

So ultimately, none of us liked this film, even when it glimmered with scenes, lines, cute actors, or moments with potential, a sort of hologram of entertainment. And this collective dissatisfaction seems to me to have everything to do with Sweet Home Alabama's ruthless contempt for groups and collectives. It's fine and well for a movie to pretend it endorses down-home sensibilities, but let's not mistake that our blue-eyed friends hightail it for NYC in the photographic epilogue, virtually shoved onto the highway by all the friends and family who profess they, too, would leave Dixie the minute they got a chance. And it's fine to advertise a romantic comedy with no more complicated poster art than a photo on white background of the peachy-faced star, unless what this depiction disguises is that the character as written doesn't fit any of the lovers, situations, or communities you've written around her as context. No one feels at home in Sweet Home Alabama, and nothing looks or tastes or smells or feels or sounds like home either, for the characters or for us. This is what My Big Fat Greek Wedding realizes, whatever its limitations, but Sweet Home Alabama never does: the last thing you want an audience to feel during your cozy romantic comedy is the distinct sensation that all of us, onscreen and off, are out of place. Grade: C–

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