Sweet Home Alabama
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Josh Lucas, Patrick Dempsey, Candice Bergen, Ethan Embry
Director:

Andy Tennant

Writing credits: Andy Tennant, C. Jay Cox
Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Rated: PG-13 (for some language/sexual references
  (109 minutes, US 2002)

Well, it's official.

The period of peace on earth, good will towards New York from the folks of the "red states" is over. We're back to being a bunch of damn Yankees; shallow, materialistic, phony, gay, DEMOCRATS. In short, not real Amurricans, not like the good folks of Pigeon Creek.

Pigeon Creek, the location of much of Andrew Tennant's new romantic quasi-comedy SWEET HOME ALABAMA, is not in the state of the movie's title, but in its kissin' cousin, Movie Alabama. In Movie Alabama, the only black people are the surly mail sorter and a rich guy's maid. In Movie Alabama, all the young guys are really cute and have crinkly blue eyes and perfectly straight teeth and an unaffected, insouciant charm and the kind of toned buffness that you usually only see on Calvin Klein models. If you're gay in Movie Alabama, and you're outed in a bar when everyone's had too much to drink, your friends since childhood merely shrug off the news, instead of beating the crap out of you the way they would anywhere else in the south. In Movie Alabama, there isn't a church in sight, let alone one of those Southern Baptist churches where the parishioners spend Saturday afternoons screaming epithets at the local Planned Parenthood clinic and carrying signs that say "God Hates Fags."

The denizens of Movie Alabama are kind and good and generous and loving and have designated drivers and there's no domestic violence. In Movie Alabama, the preferred male pastime is not that pussy-ass game where you hit the ball with a stick and then walk over to it and hit it again. No, in Movie Alabama they dress up in full Confederate gear and re-enact the Civil War -- every weekend, so as to enjoy it repeatedly. In movie Alabama they have catfish festivals and honkytonks AND a pet cemetery with statuary.

Fashion designer Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon) hails from Pigeon Creek, though it's not something she wants people to know about, not even her hunky and too-good-to-be-true boyfriend, Andrew Hemmings (Patrick Dempsey), a JFK Jr. lookalike who just happens to be the son of Movie New York mayor Murphy Brown. In Movie New York, September 11, 2001 was just another sunny day in late summer. In Movie New York, a cute little thing like Melanie is a hot young fashion designer in her first solo show, despite the fact that her designs look like something you'd find at Rainbow Shops and the clothes she herself wears look purchased from a less-than-topnotch 1960's vintage clothing store. And in Movie New York, Jackie O is not only still alive, but has morphed into Candice Bergen.

Because this is Movie New York, it's possible for the Mayor's son to rent out Tiffany's after closing time, spirit his ladylove there without her recognizing the place, and have the store fully staffed with people whose sole job is to set out engagement rings for her to choose from. I feel sorry for all the young men whose girlfriends are going to drag them to this, because their plans of proposal via Diamondvision at opening day at Shea next year just aren't gonna cut it after they see this.

There's just one problem in paradise, however -- Melanie has an estranged husband back home in Pigeon Creek that she must first divest, so home she goes to divorce her childhood sweetheart. And from the moment Jake Perry appears on the front steps of his tumbledown lakefront home with his coon dog, we know exactly where this story is going, because omigod, it's Paul Newman circa 1952! No, though it sure looks like him. It's not Matthew McConaughey either, though it's obvious he's the guy this part was written for. No, it's Josh Lucas, the chameleonic young character actor who has quietly been building a nice little repertory of finely-crafted, diverse performances in small roles in films such as YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, THE DEEP END, and A BEAUTIFUL MIND. And lo and behold, it turns out he's not just talented but also gorgeous, with Movie Alabama crinkly eyes of cornflower blue, and an aw-shucks demeanor and a certain je ne sais quoi that ain't what Melanie remembers from the loser who puked all over her dress at their wedding and slept off the reception at a Motel 6.

Can Melanie go home again? Should she marry her Kennedyesque Prince Charming and have to deal with his harpy of a mother in perpetuity, or stay with ol' sexy Jake, whose mother (Jean Smart) has a far better disposition and owns a bar to boot? And do you care?

Built around the formidable presence of the perky but steely Reese Witherspoon, SWEET HOME ALABAMA could have been a nice little movie about honesty and redemption and forgiveness and personal growth and even the ties that bind us in marriage that are more difficult to put asunder than people want to believe -- if only someone had bothered to write a script. There is some promise in the notion of a girl having to choose between two guys who are very different but are both good, decent, nice men, rather between snooty, odious Cal Hockley and raffish Jack Dawson, or going back many years, between snooty, odious King Westley and Clark Gable's raffish Peter Warne. But strive mightily as the actors do to exploit this promise, it's to no avail. Instead, a fine cast is left to struggle with a script that plays like a Mad Libs of romantic comedy cliches.

This is supposed to be Witherspoon's movie, but the script does nothing to play to her strength; that adorable-but-ruthless debutante schtick that put her on the map in Alexander Payne's ELECTION a few years ago. Instead, the film, right down to its poster, turns her into the next Meg Ryan, just another cute, button-nosed blonde playing a shrill, annoying, self-involved woman who doesn't deserve either of the guys from whom she must choose. It's a disservice to an intelligent young woman who's widely regarded as one of the best actresses of her generation.

That her character is woefully underwritten, however, allows the other performances to shine, particularly that of Josh Lucas, for whom this is the kind of breakout role that ought to finally put him on the map. It would be easy to play Jake as a buffoon, a crotch-scratching, beer-swilling Southern stereotype, but Lucas, who switches back and forth effortlessly between great comic timing and soulful earnestness, plays him as a guy who knows perfectly well he used to be an asshole, and has been trying for the last seven years to atone by making something of himself. Not only is he no longer John C. Reilly's character from THE GOOD GIRL, he's turned into Aidan from SEX IN THE CITY -- a Bucks County-type artisan who makes sculptures out of the glass left when lightning strikes the beach outside his home.

As his rival, Patrick Dempsey, wearing the late JFK Jr's old hair on top of Sean Penn's face, has a less flashy role, but turns his romance novel of a character into something credible. Smaller but effective characterizations are presented by the inevitable Mary Kay Place as Melanie's mother, Fred Ward as her Civil War-enactor father, Melanie Lynskey as an old friend who took a much different path, and especially by Ethan Embry as the also adorably crinkly-eyed Billy Ray, the gay friend Melanie inadvertently outs while drunk.

There's something vaguely offensive about SWEET HOME ALABAMA, however, from the standpoint of this Yankee, in its broad-brush characterizations of those of us who live north of the Mason-Dixon line, especially women. The Candice Bergen character is a cardboard Republican caricature of Hillary Clinton -- a tough, abrasive blond in pantsuits who professes to represent poor people while living like WASP aristocracy and looking down her nose at those not as sophisticated. Melanie is the shrill, conflicted, bitchy career woman, not placidly contented like her baby-toting friends. In fact, Melanie is such an unappealing heroine, despite Witherspoon's adorableness, that by the time Lucas and Dempsey's characters finally meet, I became aware that THIS was the movie I wanted to see, because these two guys produce more sparks with each other in their brief scene together than Witherspoon does with either one of them in the rest of the movie. After drunkenly bonding at the local watering hole, realizing that neither one of them needs this self-involved gal, Andrew could use his connections to set Jake up with a tony Soho gallery, and Jake could introduce Andrew to the joys of NASCAR, thus turning the "limousine liberal" Andrew into a "man of the people" even the red states could love. Voilà -- a buddy movie with two appealing characters.

Romantic comedies tend to be lazy by definition -- facile, predictable, and repetitive. Those who like this genre are attracted to that very predictability. SWEET HOME ALABAMA takes some feeble steps at turning some of those conventions on their ear, only to punk out and give us yet another predictable piece of female-oriented pap. If there's one thing worse than an ordinary romantic comedy, it's one where there's so much promise and so much talent, squandered on a lazily-written, hastily-cranked-out chick flick.

- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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