Reese Witherspoon’s “Sweet Home Alabama” is a highly predictable Romantic Comedy that, surprisingly, has a bite. The premise is relatively simple, and the movie moves through all the required plot points necessary to lead to the inevitable ending. And yet, the movie has a number of unexpected twists courtesy of a smooth screenplay by C. Jay Cox that elevates “Alabama” beyond the standard Romantic Comedy.
Reese Witherspoon (“Legally Blonde”) stars as Melanie, a New York fashion designer who, in a previous life, was from a small town in Alabama where she married her childhood sweetheart Jake (Josh Lucas) right after high school. Now successful and engaged to the handsome, debonair, and politically ambitious Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), Melanie has to return home and convince Jake to sign the divorce papers. You see, Jake has never stopped loving Melanie, and although Melanie left him 7 years ago for New York, he still refuses to sign the divorce papers in hopes of a possible reconciliation.
By now you should know that Melanie’s return to Alabama will result in Fist Out of Water comedy, as her New Yorker has to readjust to the Down Home Comfort of the South. Also, you can easily predict that, by movie’s end, Melanie will have decided that Jake has always been the man for her, and dumps Andrew at the alter to come running back to Jake. If you couldn’t figure out these two elements of “Alabama” just by reading the premise, then you’re either not a movie critic, or you haven’t seen nearly enough movies as a common fan.
Despite its predictability, “Sweet Home Alabama” benefits from Witherspoon’s likeable performance. Even when she goes off the deep end and insults everyone and everything around her, Witherspoon is such an engaging actor that it’s hard to completely hate her. Melanie’s return to Alabama, and the Culture Clash that results, provides much of the movie’s comedy. “Alabama” has no real laugh out loud moments, but there are a number of scenes that makes one smile, and that’s enough.
“Alabama” also works as a Romantic Comedy, mostly due to Witherspoon’s lively chemistry with the rugged and handsome Jake. Josh Lucas (“Session 9″) brings just the right amount of charm and tough guy toughness to the role of Jake, and it’s easy to see that Jake desperately still loves Melanie. We also feel for the tough guy when he gets down on himself for not being “good enough” for her. You see, after Melanie left him 7 years ago, Jake has gone on a quest to make “something” of himself so he can deserve her love again. Lucas and Witherspoon’s chemistry is terrific from beginning to end.
The screenplay is also commendable for not turning Patrick Dempsey, as “the other man”, into a despicable douche bag. In fact, Dempsey’s Andrew is actually very likeable, and the kind of man we could see Witherspoon’s Melanie marrying. The point is, we the audience wouldn’t be completely ticked off if Melanie had married Andrew and not Jake. The guy just isn’t all that bad.
Movies like “Alabama,” with its emphasis on Culture Clash for comedy’s sake, requires a good supporting cast to carry the day. Fred Ward shows up as Melanie’s Civil War obsessed father; and Ethan Embry provides a nice counterbalance to all the Southern air as Bobby Ray, a closeted gay. Candice Bergen has an elongated cameo as Andrew’s mother, New York City’s stuffy mayor. Bergen has the villain role, but it’s not much of one since she doesn’t actually try to sabotage the wedding; beyond actively trying to convince her son not to marry Melanie, that is.
“Sweet Home Alabama” is everything you would expect in a Romantic Comedy, but with a little bit more of things you wouldn’t expect. The filmmakers know what they’re doing, and give us all the prerequisite moments necessary to move the plot to its inevitable conclusion. None of this stops “Alabama” from being vastly entertaining, funny, and romantic at the same time.
Andy Tennant (director) / Douglas J. Eboch (story), C. Jay Cox (screenplay)
CAST: Reese Witherspoon …. Melanie Carmichael/Melanie Smooter
Josh Lucas …. Jake Perry
Patrick Dempsey …. Andrew Hennings
Candice Bergen …. Kate