|Sweet Home Alabama|
|DVD Romantic Comedy|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 04 February 2003|
If it weren't for the charming, funny lead performance by Reese Witherspoon, there would be little reason to talk about the hackneyed "Sweet Home Alabama." As usual with Hollywood movies set in small towns, details and even the whole ambiance are wrong. The screenplay by C. Jay Cox wants to have everything two ways: the residents of the small Alabama town are hayseed redneck ignoramuses, but also the salt of the Earth. We're supposed to laugh at them and embrace them, but one approach pretty much kills the other. Director Andy Tennant is a standard Hollywood hand with little personal style, and an impersonal approach to the material.
Witherspoon is Melanie Carmichael, a clothing designer who's lived for seven years in New York, and is on the verge of a big breakthrough. She's been seeing Andrew Hennings (Patrick Dempsey), the JFK, Jr.-like son of New York's mayor, Kate Hennings (Candice Bergen). In a sweeping romantic gesture, he arranges her to be surprised in the (real) showroom of Tiffany's; surrounded by millions of dollars in jewels, she's surprised and delighted when he proposes to her.
Fine, but there is something she has to tend to back in Alabama, and takes a plane and rental car down there right away. It turns out she's still married to Jake (Josh Lucas), the kind of redneck layabout who lives with a bloodhound. There's some evidence that he's doing okay for himself (there's an amphibious plane on the lake out back), but he gets angry at Melanie's high-handedness, and still refuses to sign the divorce decree.
Waiting him out, she stays with her father Earl (Fred Ward) and mother Pearl (Mary Kay Place; ain't it cute the way they's names rhyme), whom she hasn't seen in seven years. She's invited them up to New York a couple of times, but her homebody folks have stayed put in Alabama.
Melanie renews old friendships, like red-headed Wade (Courtney Gains), now the local sheriff, and Bobby Ray (Ethan Embry), the local gay -- though no one but Melanie knew that until she accidentally outs him at the local honkytonk saloon.
Finally, Andrew comes down to meet her; he gets along okay with her folks and even with Jake, but doesn't know the truth about his relationship with Melanie. He goes back to New York and persuades his highly skeptical mother to come to Alabama with him for his marriage to Melanie.
However, Melanie has been learning surprising things about Jake. As kids, they were frightened by lightning on the beach, but Jake was fascinated by the kind of gnarled rope of glass the lightning fused out of beach sand. And now he runs a popular and fashionable glass emporium. Gee, he has an artist's soul after all, so maybe they will get back togither.
Actually, there is never a moment of doubt that they will, since in Hollywood romantic comedies, the first marriage is the one and only TRUE marriage. Cox and Tennant at least depict Andrew very favorably; he likes Melanie's folks, he doesn't find anything quaintly amusing about her Alabama friends and neighbors -- and of course he's devastatingly handsome and incredibly rich. This is quite unusual, and the filmmakers deserve a little praise for trying it. But they overdo it: Jake is such an emotional hayseed that Melanie finally setting for him seems like sentimental mush, not the reasonable choice. (There's even the suggestion that she's going to give up her career as a designer.)
But very little about the film is believable. It's the kind of small-town movie turned out by people who, maybe once, drove through a small town. Those of us who grew up in small towns know that they are rarely the ideal, homey place shown in the movie. Everyone who opens their mouths here has a vividly colorful character, and they're all just such nice folks you could puke. There are, of course, many virtues to small towns -- but they are rarely those insisted on in "Sweet Home Alabama."
Fortunately, the movie stars Reese Witherspoon, who fastens onto her role of Melanie like a pit bull. She knows exactly what she looks and sounds like, and makes Melanie an instantly likeable, believable character. Witherspoon is likely to be one of the first major stars of the new century; if that doesn't happen, she'll still be around as a great character lead.
Josh Lucas plays Jake way too broadly, creating an oddly sinister effect. At times, he seems almost like one of those killers who used to populate slasher movies, living in the last house on the left on a hill with eyes. He's always intense, never relaxed, and it's a little unlikely that Melanie would choose him over the quiet, good-natured Andrew. But this is one of those movies.
Mary Kay Place and Fred Ward are both excellent, as they usually are, but Candice Bergen is just a tad too impatient and dictatorial. She seems as though she's walked out of another kind of movie altogether.
The movie is peppered with scenes of local color, some of which are modestly interesting, such as the Civil War re-enactment that Earl is involved in. Others are not so interesting, such as Jake's tale of an exploding cat. But none of it rings true.
The 'scope photography by Andrew Dunn is handsome and well-composed, with excellent use of color. The sound is standard for a middle-budget Hollywood movies these days, well-mixed and professional, but there are just too many songs as part of the score. The movie tends to be shrill, and the songs overstate everything.
The DVD is well-produced, but the extras are only as interesting as the movie. Director Andy Tennant's commentary track is adequate but uninspired, like the movie. There's a surprising number of deleted scenes, since an entire character and a minor subplot were cut out of the movie altogether. The disc also includes the downright ghastly original ending of the film; it's so ill-considered it's surprising anyone would feel that it was appropriate. (It's still a happy ending, though.)
"Sweet Home Alabama" was a modest hit theatrically, mostly due, I suppose, to Reese Witherspoon. As a DVD, it's ideal for a rental on a slow night when all the TV offers is reruns, but you'd have to really like the movie already to consider buying it.