Had this movie been made forty years ago, it would've starred Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; it's that kind of story-- a romantic and lusty foray into the human condition that takes truth, honesty and love into consideration while examining the relationships of those involved. As for the Newman/Woodward fantasy, as an audience we could only be so lucky. Because `Sweet Home Alabama,' directed by Andy Tennant, coasts with a `Fast Food Generation' sense of romance, and from frame One any `lusty' aspects of the film would be more aptly defined as `dusty,' `musty' or `rusty.' If this is a reflection of the sense and sensibility of romance in the new millennium, then just stop the world now and let me off.
Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon), seven years removed from her roots in Alabama has achieved success in the Big Apple. She is `The' new designer of the fashion world, and the man of her dreams, Andrew Hennings (Patrick Dempsey) has just proposed. Life is good; but there are a couple of things standing between her and the American dream. One is Katherine Hennings (Candice Bergen), Andrew's mother. But the biggest obstacle is back home in Alabama, and before she can realize her dream she's going to have to resolve a few things from her past. Which means a trip back home to the place-- and the life-- she's worked so hard to get away from. But there's no getting around it; to move ahead with her new life she's going to have to open some closet doors and rattle some skeletons. So for Melanie, it's off to her old sweet home, Alabama, to visit the past she'd rather forget.
As a director, Andy Tennant has his roots in television, and for better or worse-- it is, perhaps, a subjective call-- he has time and again attempted to adapt his small screen sensibilities to the big screen, which worked well enough in `Ever After,' in 1998, but achieved dismal results the next year in `Anna and the King.' This offering falls somewhere in-between. To be fair, though, the problems began before Tennant ever came on board, and it falls directly on writers Douglas J. Eboch (story) and C. Jay Cox (screenplay), who cranked out a story/screenplay that is decidedly uninspired and lacks any semblance of originality whatsoever. As a rule, I personally rail against those who deem the outcome of just about any film `predictable,' because it's usually in reference to plot developments that are, more accurately, `inevitable.' This one, however, is going to make everyone in the audience thinking they have The Sight.
To put what Tennant has done here into perspective, one must place him on the scale by which directors of romantic comedy are judged. On the strength of her `Return To Me,' Bonnie Hunt shares the apex of the chart with the undisputed master of the RC, Nora Ephron, both of whom register at the 100th percentile. At the nadir of the chart is Adam Shankman (`The Wedding Planner'), with a `0' percentile. This film puts Tennant at about 20. Granted, he was handed a poor script (how did this get the green light in the first place? It's been DONE already!), but he exhibits a veritable lack of vision with a truly unimaginative rendering of the material. The story is trite and the characters are inherently uninteresting, but he could have at least livened things up a bit. He even blew the outdoor dance scene, which was custom made for some good old down home Alabama rockabilly and line dancing; instead, what you get is a glimpse and a cut-away to a shot of the good ol' boys sitting atop a water tower drinking beer. Make that the 19th percentile.
In `Election' and especially in `Legally Blonde,' Reese Witherspoon is a charismatic, forceful presence on the screen. As Melanie, however, she comes across as too self-absorbed to be likable, and there's a scene in which she's had a bit too much to drink that, as they say, shows her (Melanie's) true colors. She has too much of an edge to evoke any empathy, and overall, her performance isn't that convincing. She gets the `hard' side of Melanie right, but when she goes for `soft' it translates to pretentious and lacks the realism that would make it believable. In retrospect, Melanie is rather unattractive and unappealing, which makes this film a hard sell.
Josh Lucas, meanwhile, though a step up from McConaughey's Steve/Eddie of `The Wedding Planner,' still comes across as a kind of third-rate Paul Newman wannabe. Comparing Newman's Ben Quick to Lucas' Jake Perry, for example, isn't comparing apples and oranges, it's more like sizzle to fizzle. Lucas is a good actor (his Martin Hansen in `A Beautiful Mind'), but he lacks the magnetism to make Jake viable.
As Andrew, Patrick Dempsey gives something of an assembly line performance. In his defense, he was given little with which to work, but he failed to explore it for the nuance that would have at least given some `identity' to his character. Dempsey has the looks and talent, and perhaps a stronger director could've exacted more from him.
And what in the world is going on with Candice Bergen? Is she destined to play a sarcastic and jaded (Katherine in this one) or disturbed (Kathy Morningside, `Miss Congeniality') version of Murphy Brown for the rest of her career? Bergen is a beautiful, gifted actor who has much more to offer than what she's been given in recent years.
The supporting cast includes Fred Ward (Earl), Mary Kay Place (Pearl), Jean Smart (Stella), Ethan Embry (Bobby Ray) and Melanie Lynskey (Lurlynn). With a different cast, director and screenplay, `Sweet Home Alabama' may have had a chance; but this bunch checked any pizzazz and credibility at the door on the way in, and the result is a film that is flat and tedious. This one seemingly had promise, but the filmmakers simply failed to deliver. 3/10.
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