Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:49 - Released 9/27/02

Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon, still a relative youngster at 27, continues to gain fame as a fresh-faced young actress with real talent, having quickly moved from suporting parts in films like Twilight and Jack the Bear to more prominent roles in Pleasantville and Cruel Intentions, all the way to full-blown starring vehicles like last year's Legally Blonde, for which she received a Golden Globe nomination. Her recent appearance in Oliver Parker's adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest showed that she can handle the classics, but Andy Tennant's Sweet Home Alabama has her sliding back into the more familiar and less challenging ground of simple romantic comedy. While Witherspoon (who is actually from Tennessee) does fine with the part, the movie itself is nothing to write home to Alabama about. Filled with silly southern clichés and an achingly standard romantic comedy story line, it is supported mainly by Reese's performance and little else. Mediocre is too harsh a word—this film is merely average.

Witherspoon plays up-and-coming New York City fashion designer Melanie Carmichael, who, so far, has successfully hidden her low-income, Alabama-bred past from her city friends. In fact, on the eve of her first major fashion show, she receives a marriage proposal, complete with a huge diamond ring purchased at Tiffany's, from her wealthy and politically influential boyfriend Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), who happens to be the son of tough-as-nails New York Mayor Katherine Hennings (Candice Bergen). In order to proceed with marriage plans, however, she has to take care of one little thing: she must drive home to Alabama and get a divorce. Having tried for 7 years to end her failed marriage to her childhood sweetheart Jake (Josh Lucas), Melanie (née Smooter) is still known to the locals in Pigeon Creek, Alabama, as "Felony Melanie," since she enjoyed a well-earned reputation as a troublemaker and petty criminal in her younger days. Having believed she has changed, and quite proud of it, she must face her trailer-dwelling parents, Earl and Pearl (Fred Ward, Mary Kay Place), whose proudest accomplishment is having bought a brand-new recliner, her best friend Bobby Ray (Ethan Embry), whose homosexuality is known only to her, and, of course, Jake himself, whose continued income despite his having quit his job leads her to the conclusion that he is "doing something illegal." But after a few days, a few beers, and a few line dances with her old rowdy friends, she begins to wonder if she's made the right decision.

While this movie's script, by Douglas J. Eboch (story) and C. Jay Cox (screenplay), is rife with just the kind of brain-dead stereotypes and tired plot devices you'd expect from a traditional romance, it is saved primarily by Reese Witherspoon's relentless charm, coupled with director Tennant's ability to give the moviegoing public what it wants. Ten years ago this movie would have starred Julia Roberts, but Reese is moving into her own niche as one of Hollywood's most prominent young leading ladies. Whether that is a good or a bad thing is yet to be seen. ***

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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