Sweet Home Alabama
Director : Andy Tennant
Screenplay : C. Jay Cox (story by Douglas J. Eboch)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Reese Witherspoon (Melanie Carmichael), Josh Lucas (Jake), Patrick Dempsey (Andrew), Fred Ward (Earl Smooter), Mary Kay Place (Pearl Smooter), Ethan Embry (Bobby Ray), Jean Smart (Stella Kay), Candice Bergen (Kate)
Director Andy Tennant's last film was 1999's Anna and the King, the florid tale of a refined 19th-century British woman who finds herself in the ancient Oriental kingdom of Siam, which is moving slowly into modernity. His latest, the romantic comedy Sweet Home Alabama, has essentially the same narrative crux, but in this case it's a refined 21st-century New Yorker who finds herself in the backwoods of Alabama, which seems to have come about as close to modernity as it ever will. Of course, in Hollywood's terms, there is little difference between the Far East and the Deep South as far as exotic cultures go. "People need a passport to come down here," says the New Yorker at one point.
The New Yorker is a hot, up-and-coming fashion designer named Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon), who seven years ago left Alabama for the bright lights of the big city and never looked back. She left a lot of things behind her, including her trailer-park-dwelling parents (Fred Ward and Mary Kay Place), a host of redneck friends, and, most importantly, her husband, Jake (Josh Lucas). She and Jake were childhood sweethearts who got married right out of college. Melanie, however, decided that wasn't for her, and even though she and Jake are still legally married (he refused to sign the divorce papers she sent him again and again), they haven't spoken or seen each other since she left.
This proves to be a problem for Melanie because her New York life becomes even more perfect when she becomes engaged to Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), a rising young politician whose powerful mother (Candice Bergen) is the mayor and has been grooming him to become President since who knows when. Thus fully integrated into the kind of high-rent, big-city life that she never even knew existed when she lived way down South, Melanie must nonetheless to return to the roots she wishes didn't exist in order to get her divorce and get on with her "life."
Reese Witherspoon, coming off the success of last summer's infectious comedy Legally Blonde, carries most of the movie with great assurance. Even given some of the hackneyed elements of C. Jay Cox's script, she makes her character work. She even manages to make a scene in which she delivers a speech to a gravestone in a pet cemetery into a moving moment. She also has good chemistry with Josh Lucas (A Beautiful Mind), who is particularly adept at looking wounded, which he does quite often given how shabbily Melanie treats him. On the other hand, the JFKesqe Patrick Dempsey (who played JFK in a 1993 TV miniseries) makes for difficult competition because he is in no way a bad guy, even for a politician (although his overbearing mother is). Thus, when Melanie must choose between Jake and Andrew (which, of course, she must do eventually), she is genuinely choosing between two decent men—it's not like when Claudette Colbert leaves the shallow and greedy King Westley at the altar in It Happened One Night (1934).
Movies like Sweet Home Alabama walk a tricky tightrope in that the majority of the jokes are at the expense of that which it celebrates in the end. The movie opens in New York, showing us Melanie's glamorous lifestyle of fashion shows, press coverage, and a surprise marriage proposal that takes place in Tiffany's and ends with, "Pick whichever one you want." When she returns to her home, the slowly decaying small town of Pigeon Creek, it is set in immediate contrast as a backwater nightmare. Even the main street lacks any sense of charm. Yet, as we all know, home is where the heart is, and it is patently clear that, when ultimately faced with a choice, Melanie will forego the shallow big-city world of glamour and success for the down-home joys of family and catfish festivals.
Yet, it is this very division and the choice that rides on it that makes the movie so unsteady, as the filmmakers can barely hide their contempt for the Southern world in which Melanie is meant to find true happiness. Virtually everything that is funny in the movie comes at the expense of Southern and, more importantly, rural culture, whether that be Civil War reenactments, mothers who bring their babies to bars, hyperbolic enthusiasm over the reclining feature of a La-Z-Boy, or bank tellers with bangs hairsprayed six inches high. We are meant to eventually find all this charming, but the movie has made it into such a joke from the get-go that it feels disingenuous at the end when it attempts to celebrate all that it had previously made fun of.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick