Making only a minimal effort to be any different or better than the hundreds of other forgettable, predictable, almost-married-the-wrong-guy romantic comedies that have come before it, "Sweet Home Alabama" has the benefit of a talented, appealing cast and the burden of being entirely dependent on clichés to drive its story.
Reese Witherspoon stars as Melanie Carmichael, a rising-star designer in New York's fashion world who is downright giddy about her new engagement to the political mover-and-shaker son (Patrick Dempsey) of the city's image-conscious mayor (Candice Bergen). In the movie's most romantic scene, Mr. Wonderful proposes by getting down on one knee at Tiffany's, which he's arranged to stay open after hours, and telling her to pick any ring she wants.
But there's one little wrinkle Melanie's fiancé doesn't know about: Before she can marry him, she'll have to divorce her hayseed childhood sweetheart back in small-town Alabama. A handsome, blue-eyed charmer named Jake (Josh Lucas, "A Beautiful Mind") with a playful Paul Newman smirk, she did nothing but fight with him once the magic wore off their relationship, so Melanie bailed out to follow her ambition.
While you know exactly where this is going from the moment sparks start flying when they're reunited, Witherspoon and Lucas have such terrific, combustible chemistry together that it's fun to go along for the ride for a while as they snipe at each other over the divorce papers that he's not yet ready to sign -- in part because there's still some love there, but mostly just to tick her off.
So far, so cute. But the longer the movie goes on, the more formulaic it becomes. City slicker Melanie discovers being back in Alabama "fits too." Melanie comes to understand her persnickety parents and feel comfortable behind the wheel of a pick-up (uh, what happened to her Saab?). There are street fairs with livestock, honky tonk bars and reunions with old friends who now have three kids. Her fiancé eventually turns up to discover she's lied about her background (in addition to withholding her marital status, for some unexplained reason she pretended to be from a rich family when she's not), and he's very forgiving.
Most importantly, second thoughts creep into Melanie's mind when she learns that Jake has found his own sense of ambition and become an artist-entrepreneur.
Meanwhile in the movie's most glaring oversight, virtually no mention is made of Melanie's career after the first-reel scene in which she presents her first-ever fashion collection. As a young designer launching her own label and receiving rave reviews at New York's Fashion Week, the idea that she could disappear into the deep South for what seems like weeks without ever thinking about her business proves how little the filmmakers cared about presenting a credible modern woman as a heroine.
This lack of consequences extends to everything Melanie does, be it hurting her fiancé (if he's not a doormat, the movie would have to deal with reality, and that's not cute of funny) or accidentally outing a gay friend (whose redneck pals all shrug off the announcement and pat him on the back, then start making friendly jokes).
Director Andy Tennant is a deft and clever navigator of hackneyed romantic stereotypes (see "Ever After," his witty modern riff on Cinderella), and his guidance keeps "Alabama" passably entertaining in spite of its plot holes and bouts of unoriginality. Witherspoon gives a sparkling, funny but genuinely torn performance that further demonstrates her capacity as a comedienne -- although after this and "Legally Blonde," she's at risk of becoming pigeonholed as cutsey-poo like Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock (the press kit calls her "America's sweetheart"). And the film has its fair share of scene stealers (Bergen is a wry riot) and clever moments (there's a fresh, hilarious recurring plot sidebar about Civil War recreationists).
But the picture is packed with minor missteps (Witherspoon's wardrobe mars her credibility as a fashionista) and too dependent on silly set pieces (Melanie trying to pass off a friend's plantation as her own to a New York reporter) and trite turns of events. The accumulative effect of all these encumbrances makes "Sweet Home Alabama" at best a throwaway matinee despite all the talent that went into it.
Run time: 108 mins
In Theaters: Friday 27th September 2002
Box Office USA: $127.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $127.2M
Distributed by: Buena Vista Distribution Compa
Production compaines: Touchstone Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 38%
Fresh: 59 Rotten: 98
IMDB: 6.1 / 10
Director: Andy Tennant
Starring: Reese Witherspoon as Melanie "Carmichael" Smooter Perry, Josh Lucas as Jake Perry, Patrick Dempsey as Andrew Hennings, Candice Bergen as Mayor Kate Hennings, Rhona Mitra as Tabatha Wadmore-Smith