Not-So-Sweet Alabama

BY ANIKA SIMMONS

Sweet Home Alabama is a classic example of the bait and switch. Strategic editing in the film’s PR campaign entices you into thinking it’s a cute, well-written romantic comedy, but what’s delivered is a convoluted and implausible hodgepodge of a film.

Reese Witherspoon stars as Melanie Carmichael, an Alabama native with a wild streak who reinvents herself when she moves to New York City. Her life is now the epitome of urban chic — she’s a hot designer whose first show just made her the darling of the fashion world. Her boyfriend Andrew (Patrick Dempsey) surprises her with hundreds of flowers one morning, telling her each flower representing a time he thought about her the night before. Andrew, of course, is adorable, ambitious, and the most eligible bachelor in the city.

When she accepts Andrew’s marriage proposal, Melanie’s life gets complicated. Her future mother-in-law (Candice Bergen), the image-conscious mayor of New York, finds Melanie’s southern roots — and lack of visible political connections — problematic. Bergen’s character searches for dirt in order to convince Andrew to call off the wedding.

And Melanie does have secrets to hide. No one in her New York life knows that she is still married to her childhood sweetheart Jake (Josh Lucas) who has repeatedly refused to give her a divorce. She reluctantly doubles back to Alabama for the first time in seven years to put pressure on her ex-husband to give her a speedy and secret divorce.

Melanie has a hard time adjusting to Alabama. She can only see the bad in the lifestyles of her family and friends, and acts condescending towards them. Business with Jake does not go much better as they clash over the divorce paperwork.

However, a subtle shift occurs within Melanie the longer she stays. Her self-centeredness, so crucial to her survival in New York, seems out of place. The power struggle with Jake reminds her of the childish games they shared as young lovers, and she comes realize that home wasn’t as bad as she thought it was. Eventually, she finds herself in a love triangle when she develops feelings for Jake.

While it has a fine premise, Sweet Home Alabama’s mistake is that its main character is not likable for most of the film. Her haughtiness toward her family and friends makes it hard to connect with her. The filmmakers could have taken a lesson from Witherspoon’s role in Legally Blonde: It was almost impossible not to like Elle Woods; it’s sometimes impossible to stomach Melanie Carmichael. By the time she finally decides what she wants, you don’t care whether she gets it because you’re not rooting for her anymore. The film also has a disjointed feel because of relationships that don’t quite feel realistic and subplots that meander.

It is refreshing to see Southerners portrayed as something other than simple-minded caricatures in a mainstream film; this movie sees some value in a slower-paced lifestyle that shows concern for others. Another bright spot was Candice Bergen, showing the same about-to-blow-my-top intensity she brought to Murphy Brown.

Overall, Sweet Home Alabama is a disappointment. It has all the elements of a pleasantly sappy romantic comedy, but lacks the heart necessary to make all the sappiness endearing.

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