[Screen It]


(2002) (Reese Witherspoon, Josh Lucas) (PG-13)

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Romantic Comedy: A recently engaged NYC fashion designer races to her Alabama hometown to finalize her divorce from her long-estranged husband before anyone finds out about her secret past life.
Melanie Carmichael (REESE WITHERSPOON) seems to have it all - a rising fashion design career in New York City and a well-known boyfriend, Andrew (PATRICK DEMPSEY), who's just asked her to marry him. There are just two hitches.

Andrew's mother, Kate (CANDICE BERGEN), just so happens to be the Mayor and isn't pleased with his choice, but she has no final say in his decision. That's nothing, however, compared with the fact that Melanie has to travel to her hometown of Pigeon Creek, Alabama to finalize her divorce from her long estranged husband, Jake (JOSH LUCAS).

It seems that he's been reluctant to sign the papers, and Melanie hasn't seen him or her parents -- Pearl (MARY KAY PLACE) and Earl (FRED WARD) - in seven years. She hopes to get in and out of town in a hurry and never let Andrew or any of her NYC friends in on her secret, but Jake's continued reluctance means she has to stay awhile.

As she sets out to convince him, she runs into other Pigeon Creek residents such as Stella Kay (JEAN SMART), Jake's mother; Bobby Ray (ETHAN EMBRY), her in the closet gay friend; and other former acquaintances such as Lurlynn (MELANIE LYNSKEY) and Wade (COURTNEY GAINS) the sheriff. With time running out before Kate's people uncover her secret, and Pigeon Creek's small town charm and friendliness starting to win her over, Melanie must decide what to do in her life and who she wants as her husband.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
While songs and Hollywood go a long ways back, there only seems to be one reason to title a film after a song and that's name recognition. Of course, the titular ditty usually appears in the film as well. Yet, beyond musicals that are often named for one of their included songs, I can't think of many great films that have originated from a pre-existing song.

Part of that's due to few such songs actually containing enough of a "plot" or premise to fill out a full-length feature. The rest might just be repeated bad luck. Whatever the case, the trend unfortunately continues with "Sweet Home Alabama," star Reese Witherspoon's anticipated follow-up to her surprise hit from 2001, "Legally Blonde."

Another tired, culture clash comedy working from the old fish out of water setup, the film originates from Lynyrd Skynyrd's 1974 song that's somewhat of a proud anthem for the state and reportedly a response to Neil Young's "Southern Man" from a few years before. Obviously, there's not much there with which to fashion a film, so screenwriter C. Jay Cox (making his debut) and director Andy Tennant ("Anna and the King," "Ever After") have essentially just taken the 1991 picture "Doc Hollywood," changed a few parameters, complications and characters, and called it their own.

The result is a broadly played comedy that falls flat far more often than it flies, is too predictable and simply comes off as too similar to that more enjoyable Michael J. Fox film. Like any fish out of water scenario, the protagonist clashes with her surroundings, although this time they're not completely foreign to her as they're her former hometown.

In most such films, the protagonist is stuck in their new locale long enough to allow it to work its wonders over them or teach some sort of life affirming or changing message. That's true for a while here - as Melanie tries to convince Jake to finally sign their divorce papers - but once he does, she inexplicably hangs around for no reason other than that the script has told her to do so.

Not surprisingly, she then begins to see the error of her ways and eventually begins to accept the place and fit in. The only suspense, then, is which man she'll choose as her husband. You see, she just got engaged to an up and coming NYC resident, and has returned home after a long absence to finalize her divorce from her long-estranged husband.

Being a comedy, he, of course, doesn't want to grant that to her, and thus we're forced to wait to find out why and what steps she'll take to get his John Hancock. The complication/obstacle is really just a device to keep her in town long enough to teach her a lesson or two about her big city-mindedness and allow her to become reacquainted with her family and friends.

Unfortunately, Tennant and company don't do anything particularly imaginative, clever or funny with the material or its various comedic possibilities. Instead, they bring out about every small, hick-town cliché and convention there is in proving, yet again, that big cities are bad and small towns are good. Being a contemporary comedy, a few twists are added to the mix - such as one local actually being (gasp) a gay man - but little of that helps.

The filmmakers also miss a number of comedic opportunities regarding the protagonist's future mother-in-law - played by Candice Bergen ("Miss Congeniality," TV's "Murphy Brown") to full comic tilt irritation. Considering that she doesn't like and/or approve of Melanie and orders for any skeletons in her closet to be exposed, one expects some wild or at least fun related developments. That's particularly true considering that the mother-in-law-to-be is a politician presumably used to mud slinging and character assassination. Alas, little if any of that occurs.

The one thing the film has going for it is the presence of the bubbly, charming and magnetic Reese Witherspoon ("Legally Blonde," "Election"). Despite being saddled with a cliché-ridden character, she near single-handedly manages to make the film easy enough to watch simply through the personality she projects onscreen.

It's too bad the rest of the cast and/or their characters don't share that same trait here. Josh Lucas ("A Beautiful Mind," "Session 9") and Patrick Dempsey ("The Emperor's Club," "Scream 3") appear as the two men in Melanie's life. While they're designed to melt the hearts of and/or frustrate the film's target audience of female viewers, they offer little else.

Mary Kay Place ("My First Mister," "Girl, Interrupted") and Fred Ward ("Enough," "Corky Romano") appear as the protagonist's parents, and while they're okay in the roles, they're similarly hampered by flatly written characters. Ethan Embry ("Can't Hardly Wait," "That Thing You Do!") gets to play the wise local gay guy who's outed by Melanie, but the filmmakers either dropped the ball on that comedic potential or simply didn't have the guts to pursue it after introducing it.

A number of other performers are present, but similarly can't surmount the clichés. Although the film has a few amusing moments and lines - not to mention Witherspoon nearly managing to keep the effort afloat - the film's comedy is too broad, flat, occasionally forced and predictable to be as enjoyable or entertaining as it could and should have been. "Sweet Home Alabama" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed September 17, 2002 / Posted September 27, 2002

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