THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Sweet Home Alabama continues the current trend of feel-good hits, coming on the heels of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Barbershop. Movies, it seems, are going back to a more innocent time as the world around us gets increasingly complicated. (Pictures with lots of violence like Trapped or Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever seem to be out of favor.) It's clear that right now people want to come out of a theater with a smile on their face. Who can blame them? Mainstream Hollywood may not always turn out the most ambitious or artistic movies, but it sure knows how to do an old-fashioned crowd pleaser. Sweet Home Alabama is the latest proof.

Reese Witherspoon plays Melanie Carmichael, a successful fashion designer in New York. Her boyfriend Andrew (Patrick Dempsey) surprises her with a marriage proposal that will have every guy in the audience wishing he had the ability to pull off the same thing. Andrew's mother (Candace Bergen) is the city's mayor, and she doesn't really approve of Melanie. Something about the girl seems not right to her.

Reese Witherspoon gets a surprise engagement ring from Patrick Dempsey, much to the dismay of Candace Bergen in Sweet Home Alabama
Melanie accepts the proposal but then high-tails it back home to the dead-end Alabama town she fled seven years earlier. She is technically still married to her childhood sweetheart Jake (Josh Lucas) and she needs him to (finally) sign the divorce papers before she can get married again. Seven years have not made things better between the two. They pick up their fighting right where they left off. Out of spite, Jake decides not to sign the papers, so Melanie sticks around for a few days, trying to find a bargaining tool. During that time, she reconnects with the people from her past: her parents, old friends, and, surprisingly, Jake. He obviously still carries a torch for her. Eventually, Melanie finds out that Jake's not as bad as he used to be and that some of those old feelings are still there. She also loves Andrew, though, and he has no idea that there's an ex-husband in the picture.

Right off the bat, I liked Sweet Home Alabama because it doesn't take the easy route. In most movies in which a woman has to choose between two men, the story cops out by having one of them be an obvious jerk. This movie has more shades of gray. Despite his mother's dislike of Melanie, Andrew remains committed to her. He stands up to his mother and defends the woman he loves. Jake is somewhat ornery and sarcastic, but his feelings for Melanie are quite real. He sincerely wants to win her back and make things right. In the last 15 minutes, it becomes clear which man Melanie will choose, but for most of the running time it wasn't obvious which guy would win out. How refreshing to see a movie that isn't afraid of some complexity. By having her cut one guy off, the film also makes Melanie a more well-developed character. We know that, despite her inherent decency, she will have to do somebody wrong.

This is a great role for Reese Witherspoon. She's a likable actress because she's smart. You can feel her intelligence coming off the screen. A few years back, she played a dim-bulb trailer-trash killer in the movie Freeway and I didn't buy it for a second. This is a very bright young woman and not even her considerable talent can betray that. Last summer Witherspoon hit pay dirt with Legally Blonde, in which she played a woman who was superficially an airhead but a legal genius underneath. This time, her character is visibly smart but clearly confused about the choices she has made. To her, Alabama represented a dead end - a place she needed to run from in order to make something of herself. Coming home means reevaluating her decisions as well as her self-image. Witherspoon's performance is inspired, as she makes us feel the weight of the character's dilemma.

Sweet Home Alabama does contain the requisite jokes about Southern culture. Everyone seems to live in a double-wide, drive a pick-up truck, and/or act eccentrically. At least the film is affectionate toward the characters rather than condescending. The director is Andy Tennant, who knows his way around movies with female leads (he also made Fools Rush In with Salma Hayek and Ever After with Drew Barrymore). He wisely keeps the focus on Melanie and doesn't overindulge in too much bashing of people who live in the South.

Technically, the movie is formulaic. This plot is nothing new, but I liked the fact that the filmmakers found a way to make it fresh. Witherspoon shines in her role, and Josh Lucas (playing the kind of part that seems earmarked for a Matthew McConaughey type) is almost her equal. I don't recall seeing him in a movie before but he makes a definite impression. Sweet Home Alabama wants to be funny and warm; those are its only goals. It's a date movie where you laugh, have fun, and walk out reminded of just how wonderful and magical love can be. I'm a sucker for this kind of thing, especially when its done so effectively.

( out of four)

Sweet Home Alabama is rated PG-13 for some language/sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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