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Southern discomfort

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[Photos: Buena Vista Pictures]
Reese Witherspoon with city dwellers Patrick Dempsey and Candice Bergen in Sweet Home Alabama.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 26, 2002

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If you can get past the Southern slams, it's a sweet film.

Everyone gets their chance these days to be offended by something in the movies. Now it's my turn.

As a lifelong resident of the South, I'm offended by the portrayals of Southerners in Sweet Home Alabama, a state where I spent much of my childhood. I'm sure readers who disagree with my film opinions are nodding, convinced that that's been my problem all along. That kind of stereotyping is precisely what rubs me the wrong way about director Andy Tennant's otherwise chummy romantic comedy.

Not all true Southerners keep a coonhound on the porch or bologna cake in the icebox. We don't all talk slow like Forrest Gump or shifty like Boss Hogg. Only a relative few of us dress in Confederate uniforms and pine for a different finish to the Civil War. Double-wide trailers aren't standard issue. We don't always have names like Pooter and Lurlynn, or IQs too low to spell them. I never heard anyone invoke "Ya-Ya" or "Towanda" for spiritual guidance until the movies suggested that we do.

It's an outlook in movies as old and tired as Ma and Pa Kettle but that's the gist of the humor in Sweet Home Alabama. The movie isn't very funny while fashion designer Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon) is a Manhattan princess, wooed by a JFK Jr. look-alike (Patrick Dempsey) whose mother (Candice Bergen) is mayor of New York City. But when Melanie returns to Alabama to finally get divorced from her husband, Jake (Josh Lucas), whooo-ee, it's supposed to be "funner" than blowing up crawdads with firecrackers.
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Reese Witherspoon, right, is torn between her back-home husband, Josh Lucas, and a big-city boyfriend in Sweet Home Alabama.

Melanie initially reacts to her roots like a newly transformed Yankee, amazed that she knows these folks and embarrassed that her beau will find out. The tagline on the movie's poster and TV ads -- "Sometimes what you're looking for is right where you left it" -- clues viewers that Melanie will change her mind. She falls back in love with a caricature culture, until Tennant and screenwriter C. Jay Cox finally invest the story with Southern values instead of Hee Haw gags.

It's like watching a film trash, say, African-American culture, then tack on a brotherhood message that's supposed to make the bile easier to swallow.

Sweet Home Alabama does have its polished charms, especially Witherspoon's performance, no surprise since she's been ready to steal the America's sweetheart title from Julia Roberts since Pleasantville. Witherspoon is a terrifically subtle and reactive actor, pulling back Melanie's incredulity to a level that seems genuine. She's cute as a Blue Tick pup and steelier than any magnolia, gradually succumbing to the down-home charm underneath the chaos.

With a Legally Blonde sequel planned for 2003, Witherspoon appears poised to do these kinds of roles in her sleep. Let's hope those won't be her only creative choices since edgier films like Election and Freeway proved she's more than a pretty face. Watching her sell out, if she does, will be another offensive development for another review.

Sweet Home Alabama

  • Grade: C+
  • Director: Andy Tennant
  • Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Josh Lucas, Patrick Dempsey, Candice Bergen, Fred Ward, Mary Kay Place, Jean Smart, Ethan Embry
  • Screenplay: C. Jay Cox
  • Rating: PG-13; profanity, crude humor
  • Running time: 110 min.

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