Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon) has it all: beauty, charm, a successful career as a New York fashion designer, a dashing and prominent boyfriend. Oh, and then there’s the white-trash background she’s kept under wraps and the little matter of a redneck husband who won’t give her a divorce. So, when her boyfriend, Andrew Hennings (Patrick Dempsey), son of NYC’s mayor, finally pops the question, Melanie heads home to Alabama, divorce papers in hand, to demand her freedom from husband Jake Perry (Josh Lucas). A simple solution to a simple problem — simple, that is, until Melanie realizes she’s not quite over the husband she’s so anxious to get rid of. I won’t tell you how it ends, but note the film’s title is not “New York State of Mind.”
As it sounds, Sweet Home Alabama is a predictable romantic comedy, complete with contentious, star-crossed lovers fighting the ending we all know they will come to. The formula is clear, but what is not is why we are rooting for Jake and Melanie to reunite in the first place. Sure, they are childhood sweethearts, but beyond that, there is no good reason to wish them on one another, except that they look good together (and they do look wonderful).
The premise is just as unclear. We finally get an explanation as to why Jake and Melanie split up originally, and why he has stalled the divorce, but you never do know why Melanie felt she had to cover up her background. Given that pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is one of the great American ambitions, her fictionalizing a Southern socialite history for herself seems like a waste of energy. Still, Sweet Home Alabama makes her learn a feeble moral lesson when she goes back to face her past — you really can “have roots and grow wings” — but honestly, it’s unconvincing and seems tacked on.
The disparity between Melanie Carmichael and her “real” identity, Melanie Smooter, is so huge as to be ridiculous (and thereby comic): Melanie Carmichael is the fiancée of the “crown prince of New York,” while Melanie Smooter is the former Queen of the Catfish Festival back home. Carmichael’s family is one of the wealthiest in Greenville, with a palatial plantation home that’s been in their family for generations. Smooter’s parents live in a trailer; Earl (Fred Ward) is a Civil War re-enactor and Pearl (Mary Kay Place) makes the best jam in three counties. Melanie Carmichael is a model of fashionable femininity; Melanie Smooter strapped dynamite to a sick cat as a “humane” means of putting him out of his misery (don’t worry, he survived).
The two Melanies are just one of many dichotomies in the film, all broadly defined: city/country, rich/poor, North/South, gay/straight. Andrew’s mother, Mayor Kate Hennings (Candice Bergen, playing pretty much the same character she did in 2000’s Miss Congeniality), epitomizes Northern/city class and urbane sophistication, versus Southern/country primitivism (they come off as a whole village of idiots). But of course, the “ironic” truth is that the folks back home aren’t so simple as they seem. Lee’s onetime best friend Bobby Ray (Ethan Embry) is into fashion design, and Lurlynne (Melanie Lynsky) might think Melanie’s success as a designer is measured by whether or not she’s met Jaclyn Smith, and she thinks it’s okay to bring her baby to a bar since he’s still “on the tit,” but she is considerate and loving. Kate Hennings, on the other hand, is just what she looks like: a classless, haughty bitch, insulting everyone in sight.
Though such stereotypes provide some decent, if predictable, laughs (most of which are seen in the film’s trailer), some of the jokes are awkward and uncomfortable. We are expected to laugh at a gay redneck or a Civil War re-enactor (read: racist) squirming because a black guy is in his house, not because they do anything particularly amusing, but because they are, apparently, inherently funny as concepts. They aren’t, of course, and trying to pass them off as such runs the risk of validating, or worse, applauding the bigotry that stereotypes them in the first place.
Melanie herself is the most bewildering aspect of Sweet Home Alabama. This despite Witherspoon, who is the film’s primary blessing: she is, as always, adorable. But her character is shallow and self-absorbed, insecure and condescending, duplicitous and sometimes flat-out mean. She left her husband in the dust, lies about her past, leaves her fiancé at the altar, treats her parents like children and her old friends like simpletons. But in the same way that I hoped Melanie and Jake would get back together because, frankly, they make a hot couple, I cheered Melanie on in spite of everything I dislike about her. She looks great, and, well, she’s Reese! “People want to be me!” whines Melanie, as she tries her best to convince everyone in her hometown (including herself) how perfect her life is in New York. It’s true in a way. When the film got slow, I found myself wishing I was Reese Witherspoon, but in a better movie.