Watching Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama is like looking at a daisy floating in a toilet: She’s the best thing in it, but you wonder what she’s doing there. After years of being terrific in movies whose audiences ranged from few to nobody, Witherspoon finally broke through in Legally Blonde, an agreeable enough trifle, provided that you agreed to overlook the film’s rampant lameness and concentrate on Reese. Sadly, her overdue success appears to have taught Witherspoon that sharp, offbeat scripts (Freeway, Pleasantville, Election, etc.) are not the way to go, and so we get Sweet Home Alabama, not a frame of which, curiously, was actually filmed there; Georgia and Florida stand in for Alabama, though New York City gets to play itself.
Here, Witherspoon is Melanie Carmichael, though her given name is Smooter, and her married name — from a “just-outta-high-school” union she’s spent seven years forgetting — is Perry. Whichever Melanie she is, she’s far removed from her roots in Pigeon Creek, Alabama, and now designs fabulous clothes in fabulous New York. It’s every gal’s dream, except that most gals, I presume, don’t dream of Patrick Dempsey. He plays Andrew, Melanie’s fawning and moist-eyed fiancé, and I really must apologize for chortling about the waifishness of Stuart Townsend in my review of Trapped; I hadn’t yet seen Sweet Home Alabama, you see, and Dempsey makes Townsend look like Lee Marvin.
Melanie hightails it back home to serve her long-estranged husband — Jake (Josh Lucas), a good ol’ boy partial to beer and bloodhounds — with divorce papers, which he won’t sign at first, perhaps because the director told him this would be a very expensive short film if he acquiesced too soon. That director, incidentally, is one Andy Tennant, of Ever After and Anna and the King; he specializes in chick flicks in which he casts a superpowered woman (Drew Barrymore, Jodie Foster, and now Reese) and then — as if this were necessary — drains the life and color out of everyone and everything around her. Fortunately, this doesn’t work with Josh Lucas, a sly presence in indie films (The Deep End, American Psycho) apparently now being groomed for hunk status. Lucas has the wit to shrug this off; he has a way of seeming amused by whatever the script (or Reese) tosses at him.
Sweet Home Alabama does nothing so crass as having Melanie do fashion make-overs for all her old Alabama friends and family, though it might’ve been a little more fun if it had done something so crass. The movie is formulaic down to the floor, and pads itself out unattractively with scenes like the one in which Melanie gets drunk and insults everyone in a bar; it’s an ugly, wrongheaded scene, and it’s followed by several scenes wherein we have to watch Melanie going around apologizing. Surely it’s the screenwriter who should offer contrition, particularly for giving us a movie in which the only black people we see are either maids or a swishy gay designer. Andy Tennant, too, should look sorrowful for coating the soundtrack with two bloodless covers of the title song (one by Jewel) but never allowing the Lynyrd Skynyrd original into the mix (gotta make room for Avril Lavigne and No Doubt).
Everything leads to Melanie’s wedding with Andrew, whose mother is played by Candice Bergen as a nail-tough broad (and mayor of New York!) who shows more testosterone than her son. It’s always good to see Fred Ward and Mary Kay Place (as Melanie’s stereotyped parents living in a double-wide), and I was cheered, as always, by the presence of Melanie Lynskey, the usually-overlooked other half of the Heavenly Creatures duo (Kate Winslet gets all the press); Lynskey, a New Zealander born and bred, does a more convincing ‘Bama accent than does Witherspoon (who hails from Tennessee). But everyone revolves around Melanie, just as the movie revolves around Witherspoon. She deserves stardom — hell, give her a throne and tiara — but she doesn’t have to make it so easy for herself. Like Melanie, Reese is in danger of forgetting her roots — the days when she was young and hungry and taking chances in weird movies. It’d be a shame if she left that behind.