Actors save the day in 'Sweet Home Alabama'
In "Sweet Home Alabama," Reese Witherspoon's character has the most horrific challenge of her life: Will she be saddled with the irresistibly gorgeous Josh Lucas or will she be tied down to the wealthy, breathtaking Patrick Dempsey? What shall this modern-day Job do? We should all have such troubles. Despite the lack of negative factors, "Sweet Home Alabama" creates realistic drama by creating endearing characters.
Reese plays Melanie, the new star of Manhattan's fashion world. The fashion critics have proclaimed her fashion designs a hit. The future president of the United States (Dempsey) has proposed marriage, to the chagrin of his mother, New York's mayor (Candice Bergen). Celebrity, love and a bedroom in the White House suit Melanie like one of the tight dresses she designs. There's just one teensy problem. Her husband back home, Jake (Lucas), won't give her a divorce.
Melanie returns to her humble beginnings, a simple world down in Alabama with people and situation she feels she has far surpassed. Revisiting this place she fled as the prodigal daughter frustrates Melanie and she takes it out on her husband and friends.
Acting like a spoiled brat, she wears thin on everyone's nerves until that spirited youth inside Melanie who once captured the small town's heart re-emerges. As in most Cinderella stories, Melanie finds herself in a journey when she didn't even know she was lost.
"Sweet Home Alabama" should suffer due to its stereotypical and trite script that lacks in laughs or depth, but director Andy Tennant ("Anna and the King") has assembled a winning cast who work together seamlessly, creating drama and comedy and romantic energy without meaningful dialogue. Very few films can thrive without a strong script, but somehow "Alabama" manages.
The chemistry between stars Witherspoon and Lucas is electric. She's a princess, beautiful, stylish and innately funny. Lucas' good-ole'-boy looks and aw-shucks smile lend an endearing note to this diamond in the rough husband who she loves despite herself. It's no mere cliché that lightning strikes whenever they kiss.
Dempsey as the boy standing between them is quite a catch himself. An earnest politician, he's chivalrous to a fault and willing to accept Melanie for all her fallibilities and limitations. I'm thrilled that the filmmakers didn't write him as a jerk, actually giving Melanie a palpable dilemma.
Each supporting character adds their own layers. Ethan Embry is adorable as Melanie's male best friend. Mary Kay Place and Fred Ward bring dignity to their roles as Melanie's abandoned parents, torn between wanting the best for their daughter and feeling alienated from her.
Playing the grand dame to the hilt, Bergen plays a skewed version of Hillary Clinton. Consumed with public opinion, self-obsessed and cold, Bergen's mayor is a believable and wholly hysterical nemesis.
Rounding out the cast are Jean Smart, sassy as Melanie's mother-in-law and Melanie Lynskey as one of Melanie's old friends who doesn't like what the city has done to her buddy.
You rarely see such a rich ensemble cast in big studio films today. You get the impression that everyone tucked away at a summer camp for bonding for a month. You believe that these characters have known each other their entire lives.
Tennant allows his cast room to breathe and does fill the screen with some pretty images of clouds, rain and lightening. A more artistic director would have noticed though that for a cutting edge fashion designer, Melanie's outfits (which she supposedly designed herself) look like off-the-racks from the outlet mall. They're unflattering on her and she'd look precious wearing a trash bag and a yarmulke.
Watching this Disney movie, I wondered why the Touchstone light comedy king had not directed the project. This concept screams for Garry Marshall. Marshall would never have allowed moments to drag or for the laugh factor to sag. Ten joke writers would have sat on the set every day punching up the dialogue. As it is, I enjoyed my time at the film and will recommend it. With Marshall at the helm, I'd probably buy the DVD and watch it over and over.
Review by Jonas Schwartz.