As predictable as the menu for a Southern picnic and not nearly as tasty, “Sweet Home Alabama” revives the format but not the fun of classic Hollywood screwball comedies about rediscovering the virtues of a former mate. Promising charm with a heaping side portion of down-home warmth but delivering nouvelle portions of both, overly eager-to-please pic is as formulaic as any sitcom and is the first film to feature rising star Reese Witherspoon in an unintentionally unflattering light. Romantic fantasy angle of a young woman faced with a choice between two appealing guys will lure a substantial femme audience, although even the most favorably predisposed viewers won’t get as many laughs and heart-tugs as they might expect.
The “comedy of remarriage” subgenre included some of the old studio era’s most wonderful pictures, notably “The Awful Truth” and “His Girl Friday,” but the only time “Sweet Home Alabama” will be mentioned in the same breath with these standard-bearers will be as a means of illustrating the new film’s many deficiencies.
First-time screenwriter C. Jay Cox, working from a story by Douglas J. Eboch, not only buys into the most elementary cliches of traditional Hollywood storytelling and characterization, but also forwards as the film’s operating principle the fresh idea that Big City=Bad, Small Town=Good.
Unfortunately, director Andy Tennant underlines the yarn’s bland obviousness as if with a marking pen without adding the sort of texture or malicious twists that might have provided the film with a trace of personality. After watching the first 20 minutes, almost anyone of appropriate age to see a PG-13-rated picture would be able to map out how the rest of the tale will unfold, and many of them would no doubt see the wisdom of getting it told about 15 minutes faster than it is here.
Witherspoon plays Melanie Carmichael, who by her mid-20s has emerged as one of the glittering new designers on the New York fashion scene. And now, after seven years in Gotham, she’s also managed to snare the city’s most eligible bachelor, the handsome and impossibly smooth Andrew (Patrick Dempsey). Because he’s wealthy and his mom (Candice Bergen) just happens to be mayor, Andrew is able to stage a marriage proposal so extravagantly romantic — set after-hours in the main showroom of Tiffany’s, with a selection of engagement rings at hand — that a girl could hardly say no.
But one rightly suspects that there’s trouble in store when Melanie returns to Pigeon Creek, Ala., ostensibly to see her parents for the first time since she left to conquer the Big Apple. With the same bossy dander she might lay on a sloppy garment worker, Melanie stomps into the home occupied by the skeleton in her closet — a good-lookin’ but laid-back country boy named Jake (Josh Lucas), her long-abandoned husband — and demands an instant divorce so she can marry Andrew.
Melanie, whose real last name is Smooter, and Jake are like cat and dog; it only takes minutes for her to call him a “dumb, stubborn, redneck hick,” and for him to brand her a “hoity-toity, stuck-up, Yankee bitch.” Unfortunately, the latter comes very close to the truth, as all the adorableness that Witherspoon has exhibited thus far in her career here takes on a certain hard, abrasive quality never visible before; the strain of trying to carry a picture single-handedly shows, as it did not in last summer’s hit “Legally Blonde.”
That Melanie is therefore not a particularly sympathetic character — she scarcely seems pleased to see her ultra-Southern parents (Fred Ward and Mary Kay Place) after all these years — cuts against much rooting interest in this loud, pushy young woman who most people might rightly feel needs a comeuppance rather than her choice of primo males.
While impatiently waiting for Jake to sign on the dotted line, Melanie makes the rounds catching up with old acquaintances, finally earning everyone’s ill-will by insulting all the rubes on a drunken evening at a bar, and insisting upon her own, newfound superiority.
Some lame comedy ensues when a snoopy New York Post reporter arrives to dig up any dirt he can on the country girl due to marry into East Coast aristocracy, while Bergen’s snobbish mayor elicits a couple of laughs with her single-minded political assessment of every situation: “As a Democrat, I get elected by poor people,” she rationalizes when faced with the prospect of an Alabama wedding for her son.
Through it all, it’s clear that Jake has never stopped carrying the torch for his first love, but it takes rather longer in screen time than necessary for Melanie to remember why she married the scruffy but affably unpretentious Jake. Critically, the key moments that are meant to reconnect the couple don’t carry the needed undercurrent of irresistible desire, so the big denouement — set like a ’30s romantic comedy at a giant outdoor wedding — lacks the required emotional investment, not to mention a convincing payoff.
Reminding of Matthew McConaughey and a younger Kevin Costner by turns, Lucas delivers an easy-going turn that should fill the bill for the intended audience, while Dempsey’s rich boy is too uncomplicatedly “nice” to be believed. Ultra-reliable thesps Place and Jean Smart have their Southern shtick down cold, while the full comic potential of Ward’s dad, an unrepentant old Confederate with a penchant for participating in Civil War battle reenactments, remains far from fulfilled; one can only imagine the field day Preston Sturges and William Demerest might have had with such a character.
Indicative of the pic’s intensely pre-programmed quality is the musical score, which functions very much like a sitcom laugh track in cueing audience response.