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Sweet Home Alabama (Andy Tennant) 2002


    Few modern actresses exude charm, sass, smarts, and sex appeal like Reese Witherspoon does. Over the last few years, thanks to a string of solid films like Freeway, Election, and Pleasantville, it’s become almost universally accepted that she’s an immensely talented comedienne, but it’s that knowledge of her potential that keeps you from ever being able to really enjoy her latest movie, Sweet Home Alabama. The film, directed by the vaguely competent Andy Tennant, is a routinely conceived romantic comedy, but Witherspoon has always done her best work with premises that were anything but routine. As the movie opens, we find that this time out the actress is playing Melanie, a thriving young New York-based fashion designer who is forced to confront her hidden past when she agrees to marry the son of the city’s female mayor (Candice Bergen). Essentially a dressed up sitcom that ekes its humor from the culture clash that occurs when its impossibly closed-minded New Yorkers enter the backwoods, Sweet relies heavily on the charms of its lead performer. Unfortunately, not even Witherspoon can sell everything that the film throws at us.


    It doesn’t help matters that the Sweet Home Alabama simultaneously wants us to be embarrassed by and drawn to the group of yokels that Melanie used to call her friends. The film presents Alabama as a foreign planet or a third world country, and at one point when an exasperated Melanie exclaims, “people need a passport to come down here!” you can understand what she means, even as you think it’s an awful thing to be saying. The families portrayed aren’t particularly crass or destitute, and they hardly qualify as rednecks, though, so the film’s sheer mortification when showing them seems to underline just how picture perfect most alternate realities that Hollywood projects are. Still, one could hardly call Sweet a portrait of Southern realism. The only black characters in the South seem to have jobs in service industries and the gauzy photography seems designed to hide any possible ugliness from our eyes. There are attempts to wring drama out of the hackneyed dilemmas that are set up along the way. They are alternatively clichéd (which boy will Melanie pick?), trite (is Melanie only striving for success to please her mama?), and unintentionally hilarious (in one scene, Melanie pouts to her friend, “I’m so sorry I outed you!”), but they all consistently fall flat. It’s only when the film reaches for laughs, such as when Candice Bergen’s snide caricature of Hilary Clinton is on screen, that it works, and that happens less often that you might think. From a script that’s obviously been tailor made for the Southern-born Witherspoon, you would expect more of her verve to shine through, but she’s only a bit better than average here. Hopefully, Witherspoon will soon focus her considerable comic talents on projects that have more ambition. Otherwise, we might find ourselves one day watching her in Legally Blonde 7: Goin’ Gray.


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Jeremy Heilman