Something about Reese Witherspoon has been drawing audiences to her movies in a way that no other current young actress can. Lately, she has the charisma, the charm and the acting chops that originally had the public buzzing about Julia Roberts. She shines both on screen and off, making most women envious of either her real life or those of the roles she plays. Right now, it seems that she can do no wrong. “Sweet Home Alabama” is one movie where her presence raises the entire quality of the movie as her acting is superb and her on-screen chemistry with Josh Lucas makes this the date movie of the year.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of Touchstone
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Melanie Carmichael (Witherspoon, “Election”) has a life of which most women can only dream. With a blossoming career in fashion design and a boyfriend, Andrew (Patrick Dempsey, “Loverboy”), known as the most eligible bachelor in New York, how could she ask for anything more? But her world turns upside down after Andrew asks her to marry him in a proposal scene that will surely be remembered as one of the most impressive. After he kneels and tells her to pick any ring in the Tiffany’s store, she apparently needs to keep the engagement a secret until she can clear unsettled business back home, in Alabama. When his mother (Candice Bergen), the mayor of New York and stereotypical stuck-up Yankee, discovers the ring and accidentally flashes it to the ever-present press, Melanie’s situation becomes a little more pressing than she had hoped.

Finding herself swept back into the world she left behind, we quickly learn that this southern belle hides a checkered past. She has a husband that she must divorce before she can have this dream wedding. The only problem is that Jake (Josh Lucas, “American Psycho”) wants her to remember her roots before signing the papers. In a whirlwind of old stories and older friends, Melanie soon reinvents her southern accent, recreates the days of felony Melanie, and offends all of her country bumpkin chums before she realizes what home used to be like. Everything hits her with a dose of modesty as she loses her yuppie, snobby edge and becomes willingly re-appropriated. Problems arise when her package of lies that represented her life in New York surface in Alabama, where the charade continues. Her actions come full-circle, as she must decide whether to take action on her new feelings for Jake, whom she fell in love with as a 10-year-old.

This film is a pleasant surprise of a lighthearted comedy. Enjoyable jokes and memorable characters make the film one worth sitting through on a weekend date night. Witherspoon is gorgeous with her southern accent, and her performance is exceptional. Josh Lucas is funny and has a classic down home style akin to Matthew McConaughey. Even the supporting roles are pleasing as they welcome everyone down for a taste of the Deep South. Fred Ward, as Melanie’s father, has some hilarious scenes; Ethan Embry draws laughs as an unconventional southern character; and Candice Bergen is always funny in her sophisticated, high society mode.

On the downside, however, the North versus South undercurrent sidetracks the romantic comedy aspect of the story. The film repeatedly reminds viewers that history should be remembered but does so in a tiring fashion. Melanie is caught between her life in New York and past in Alabama, but everybody else fulfills some stereotype of their respective territory or profession, including a gay fashion designer. Although these do have their place in the film, director Andy Tennant (“Ever After”) overplays them to solicit laughter that only hinders the story.

“Sweet Home Alabama” has little to stand on besides its performances and humor. Somewhere in the midst of a good idea, the predictable story is depleted with holes. Too much screen time is spent with Melanie struggling inside, and not enough attention is given to the multitude of complex characters and history around her. Great potential could have been reached, but Tennant and the writers settle for a simple, mindless romantic comedy.

It might not be the best film of the year, but the movie does leave viewers with both a lingering good feeling and a smile.

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