A Film Review By Michael Haley
|Rating:PG-13 for language and sexual innuendo
Starring:Reese Witherspoon, Josh Lucas, Patrick Dempsey, Ethan Embry, Candace Bergen
Directed By:Andy Tennant
Reese Witherspoon has always been a joy to watch on the screen, for unlike many actresses of the studio system, she knows how to provide performances that are not only entertaining but usually contain a deal of artistic merit (except for maybe Little Nicky). Heck, she was even able to make me care about a ditzy blonde in Legally Blonde, and let me say that is no small achievement. Thanks to that role she is emerging as a full blown star, and is now faced with the film that typically comes along at such a point in a rising star’s career…the feel good stock situation film that while technically hasn’t been done before, we all know where it’s going anyhow. Is she able to pull this off? Almost, but not quite.
Reese stars as Melanie “Carmichael” who makes her living as a fashion designer in “the big city.” Her sweet thing Patrick Dempsey is the mayor’s son, and is planning a career in politics. He proposes to her and they are quickly engaged, but she has a slight problem…she is still technically married to her high school sweetheart down in Alabama, whom she has left behind seven years ago without finalizing a divorce. Therefore, she must go down to Sweeeeeeeeeeet Home Alabama to get said divorce. However, during her stay she begins to get in touch with her old roots that she desperately wanted to escape from, and begins to wonder if maybe Alabama’s where she truly belongs.
Most of the film takes place in the South namely Alabama, and this film makes sure you’re aware of it in every frame. We get every stinkin’ Southern attitude, moment, and what not at every step of the way, from numerous references to the Confederacy, redneck hicks, the song “Sweet Home Alabama” performed not once but twice, and let’s not forget the good old plantation. Maybe I’m wrong here, but do real Southern people remind themselves and everyone around them that they’re good old Southerners at every single possible moment? But of course this is done to draw the sharp distinction between New York “Hoity toity snobs” from Alabama wonders of nature and pig slop. The film argues that the pig slop is obviously the correct and moral way to live life without giving them New York bastards a fair chance, even though the New Yorkers are shown as decent folk.
I’m thinking too much about the social threads running through the film, which only wishes to be a sweet romantic comedy about an intelligent woman who seems awfully unintelligent when the plot requires it. That I can buy, because this is a standard Hollywood film, which usually dictates characters by plot rather than personality. However, despite being pegged as a sweet romantic comedy, the film runs into two problems. One is that the movie really isn’t that funny, aside from a chuckle or two. Second is the surprising amount of mean-spiritedness running through Reese’s character. One scene has her get drunk and say all the wrong things to all the right people, and although she might have issues with sweet home Alabama, this scene struck me as a false note. Without giving anything away, she comes forth with several secrets about several characters including Ethan Embry’s, his of which could be particularly damaging. This didn’t make a great deal of sense because a scene shortly before it worked in establishing a nice rapport between the two, and then she quickly becomes hoity toity bitch when she’s drunk…booze may bring out inhibitions, but in this case it wasn’t the booze, but the screenwriter wanting to inject a superfluous conflict into the film. Also, her contempt for her family in addition to the previous scene throws the tone of the film off-balance…it’s as if director Andy Tennant couldn’t decide whether he wanted a sweet, feel good comedy or a mean spirited film and tried to have both, but as a character says in the film, “You can’t ride two horses with one ass.”
Also, the plot is predictable (you’ve seen this already in some form or another for the past sixty years) and implausible. How come everyone in Alabama is so quickly understanding and humane towards Ethan Embry’s revelation, which in reality, might have left him tarred and feathered? Why does Reese pick the person she does at the end of the film, when the other suitor is indeed not only a more logical, stable choice, but a nicer one as well? Reese and her ex-husband have a nice chemistry as good friends, but ex-lovers? Soul mates? And why does Bergen’s character have to be so one-dimensional? The only purpose she serves in the film is to provide grief to these people, and because she’s the mayor and involved in politics, that supposedly makes her more evil.
If anything saves this routine and spotty plot, it’s Reese’s performance. She manages to make her character sympathetic and likable, even when the audience disagrees. Also, she manages to take one scene and raise it from its formulaic roots, where she visits the grave of a former pet dog that died in her seven year absence. She brings the right note to the scene to elevate it beyond cheesiness, and struck me as one of the few truly genuine moments in the film. I admit I’m biased there, because although it wasn’t a dog, I had a similar experience last October at a cemetery, so keep that in mind when determining the validity of my opinion. By the time the credits roll, however, Sweet Home Alabama comes off as merely average. I didn’t have a lot of affection for it, but it does have a moment or two. Reese is good, but if you want to see her and a film that’s good, stick to Election or Pleasantville.