Reese Witherspoon has a real knack for finding movies that sound
horrible on paper but play just fine on screen. Last year, she starred
in "Legally Blonde," a movie that took a flat-out embarrassing premise -
Valley Girl goes to Harvard - and turned it into a surprisingly engaging
comedy. Mind you, we're not talking high art here: The film was still a
trifle, it was a just a much more pleasant trifle than most of us ever
thought it could be.
"Sweet Home Alabama" works similar magic. The premise - before marrying
Prince Charming in NYC, a young woman must return to her roots in
Hooterville - sounds terrible. But Witherspoon once again chose her
material with great care and the production succeeds as a good-natured
little romantic comedy that scraps ugly stereotypes about the Old South
and replaces them with benign stereotypes about the New South. "Sweet
Home Alabama" is the cinematic equivalent of a corndog: It's made of
material that is questionable at best and it has no nutritional value,
but, as you eat it fresh from the deep fryer, it tastes pretty damn
Witherspoon plays Melanie Carmichael, a hot young fashion designer in
Manhattan. Hours before her biggest show yet, her boyfriend Andrew
Hennings (Patrick Dempsey), son of the mayor (Candace Bergen) and one of
the city's most eligible bachelors, blindfolds her and whisks her away
in a limo. When he removes the black silk cloth, she finds herself
standing in the middle of Tiffany's, surrounded by diamonds and
salesclerks with forced smiles. She accepts his marriage proposal and
quickly finds herself back in the limo, sporting a ring with a rock on
it the size of a headlight. When the jubilant young man mutters, "I
can't wait to see the look on my mother's face when she finds out about
this," Melanie gets a perturbed expression but says nothing, no doubt
anxious to avoid a nasty case of M.E.P. (movie ending prematurely).
Indeed, Andrew's mother is horrified by the pending nuptials, but
Melanie doesn't have time to notice. She's too busy frantically
organizing a trip back to her hometown of Pigeon Creek, Ala., to get her
childhood sweetheart Jake Perry (Josh Lucas) to sign the final divorce
papers from their marriage. So Little Miss Sophisticated New Yorker ends
up in Hicksville, U.S.A., the very place she struggled so hard to escape
Now this is the point where I would normally post a SPOILER WARNING, but
surely you must know how the rest of the story will go. If not,
congratulations on sounding out the long words and getting so far into
Jake, of course, turns out to be a diamond in the rough, starting off
dirt covered and rude, but growing more handsome and gallant with each
successive scene. Melanie, of course, turns out to be a self-absorbed
poseur (I believe Jake uses the term "hoity-toity") badly in need of
some life lessons.
As the story plays out, we meet the people of Pigeon Creek, which turns
out to be a bucolic contemporary Mayberry. Melanie's parents (Fred Ward
and Mary Kay Place) are gentle, sleepy souls still living in their old
trailer. They love their daughter unconditionally, although her
pretensions often make them wince, albeit slowly. Her mother-in-law
Stella (Jean Smart) is a natural hostess who runs the local honky-tonk,
and her old buddy Bobby Joe (doe-eyed Ethan Embry) is a gay man who
remains in the closet so that he can continue to drink, scratch and spit
with the other guys.
How idyllic is Pigeon Creek? When Melanie inadvertently "outs" Bobby Joe
at the honky-tonk, he races away in anger and shame. The next time he
sees the guys, they act a bit standoffish, but when Jake gently chides
them, they immediately exchange "Aw Shucks" glances and welcome their
sheepish-looking brother back into the fold.
Yeah, that's how it works.
Everything is as cheesy as can be, which is the appeal of the film.
Remember "Swiss Family Robinson?" The people were impossibly nice, the
story totally predictable and nothing in the production looked or seemed
even faintly realistic, but it was a wonderful place to visit. "Sweet
Home Alabama," also from Disney, offers a low-rent Wal-Mart version of
paradise. Despite all the hokum, I was more than willing to tour the
place for an hour and a half and likely will pop in for a return visit.
Turn your nose up if you will, but that will only mean that you're one
of those hoity-toity types.
Copyright © 2002 Edward Johnson-Ott