In the new romantic comedy "Sweet Home Alabama," Reese Witherspoon plays Melanie Carmichael, a hot New York fashion designer who, on the night of her debut collection, is whisked off to Tiffany's for a marriage proposal. Her boyfriend (who's the mayor's son) pops the question amid stacks of robin-blue boxes and a cortege of smiling staff weighed down with treasure. Melanie beams, accepts, then pounces on a diamond bigger than the Ritz and the Plaza put together. She may be a romantic, but she knows good value, which is why she's soon headed south of the Mason-Dixon Line, returning to her humble past to divorce the hick she left behind.
If movies were anything like life (and her ghastly collection anything like fashion), Melanie would be already divorced and weeping into her Women's Wear Daily. Instead, the day after her runway triumph, this Dixie Holly Golightly is driving through her hometown of Pigeon Creek, Ala., with a look of such unmitigated horror you'd think she'd taken a wrong turn into a John Waters trailer park. What's strange about her reaction is, although it's missing the usual complement of retail citadels and junk-food chains, her former home looks a lot like any number of American towns you pass on the interstate. There may be a Confederate flag or two aloft and a conspicuous absence of black residents, but the white people seem pleasant enough. Even if they listen to the Charlie Daniels Band, everyone has a forehead.
Great comedy can be had from putting the wrong person in the wrong place, but so can great condescension. Hollywood loves making movies about the joys of small-town life--but you get the feeling that the people making these movies wouldn't be caught dead (or alive) anywhere but Beverly Hills. (They love the idea of whistle-stop provincialism, not its reality.) In "Sweet Home Alabama," the big joke is that the couturier who's stormed the big city originated from a small town where she once pledged everlasting love to the boy next door. Her big lesson, of course, is that there's no place like home. But because no one involved in this film actually believes tipping cows is preferable to tipping at Babbo, she learns that lesson while holding her nose.
Soon after reaching Pigeon Creek, Melanie tracks down her husband, Jake (Josh Lucas). Pulling up to his house, one of those shabbily chic movie shacks that looks like it would fetch upward of a million dollars in Laurel Canyon, she begins waving a sheaf of divorce papers and demanding her freedom. She's still wearing the same sour look she drove in with, but as Melanie takes in the howling bloodhound, the art-directed clutter and the engine grease smudged over her husband's face, something else begins tugging at the corners of her mouth. The sourness turns to disdain, then shades into full-on disgust. It isn't just Pigeon Creek, the South or the inopportune husband that's scraping at her so insistently--it's the poverty.
Forced to stay put in Pigeon Creek, Melanie cuts a careless swath through family and friends, her every insult played for laughs. When she brags to a childhood friend that she's a designer and the woman eagerly asks if she knows Jaclyn Smith, the Charlie's Angel turned Kmart fashionista, the joke is on the woman betraying her ignorance, not the one betraying her snobbism. Of course it's easy to knock other people's taste; it's also convenient, especially if the digs obscure more precarious topics. The film may be named for a Lynyrd Skynyrd rebel yell, and the locals may dress in Civil War drag to play war games, but that's meant to be just atmosphere, like the Confederate flag pillow on the family couch and the black friend who playfully dubs Melanie his "steel magnolia."
Witherspoon has charmed her way through weak material before, but she's too inexperienced to save the character from director Andy Tennant, whose main achievement here is to turn his star's natural twinkling menace into malice. (If the older cast members fare better, it's because they're either storming the scenery, like Candice Bergen, or in on some private joke, like Fred Ward.) Then again, it's hard to imagine what a more seasoned performer could do with a woman so consumed with her own narcissism that she purposely outs a closeted male friend at a local bar because, as Melanie later explains, she didn't want anyone noticing her bad behavior.
The South takes another beating in "Sweet Home Alabama," but that's nothing compared with the one conferred on the sweetheart personality of its pint-sized Gen. Sherman.
MPAA rating, PG-13 for some language/sexual references. Times guidelines: vulgar language.
"Sweet Home Alabama"
Mary Kay Place...Pearl
A Touchstone Pictures presentation, released by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. Director Andy Tennant. Screenwriter C. Jay Cox. Story by Douglas J. Eboch. Producers Neal H. Moritz and Stokely Chaffin. Director of photography Andrew Dunn. Production designer Clay A. Griffith. Editors Troy Takaki and Tracey Wadmore-Smith. Costume designer Sophie De Rakoff Carbonell. Music George Fenton. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
In general release.