- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

Reese Witherspoon was awarded "bankable" status on the popularity of "Legally Blonde" last year. In other words, she was rumored to be worth a salary in the multimillions whenever wedded to another romantic farce. I guess "Sweet Home Alabama" is the project obliged to pay through the nose.

It certainly echoes the rampant stupidities of "Legally Blonde," which seemed to flourish in a maddening, undeserving way. At her best as the ruthless high school overachiever of "Election," Miss Witherspoon softened for "Legally Blonde" into a supposedly adorable coed, groomed strictly for knuckleheads who might be susceptible to the notion that Harvard's superiority complex could never withstand the pride of a pampered but resourceful, pure-hearted bimbo.

Now it's New York City that passes for the heavy in a condescending populist groaner that deploys Miss Witherspoon as yet another plucky fish out of water. To satisfy the prejudicial idiocies of "Sweet Home Alabama," the heroine must return to her pond of origin, a backwater called Pigeon Creek, contrived to put a humbling but improving hurt on her self-esteem as Melanie Carmichael, the hottest young fashion designer in New York.

It seems that the city's most eligible bachelor, Patrick Dempsey as a John F. Kennedy Jr. figment named Andrew, whose mom is the mayor of New York, has popped the question. He even arranges a backdoor, surprise visit to Tiffany's to ask for her hand, kneeling on the carpet while the entire staff beams.

In her haste to abandon the folksy charms of Pigeon Creek seven years earlier, Melanie neglected to divorce her childhood sweetheart, Jake (Josh Lucas). Indeed, the hometown influences were evaded or effaced so systematically that Melanie even changed her last name.

Now she thinks it prudent to motor stealthily south in order to browbeat Jake into signing divorce papers. The trip also obliges her to touch base with mom and dad. That's Pearl and Earl, played by those peerless hillbilly types Mary Kay Place and Fred Ward.

Mom specializes in such savory folk wisdom as, "The almost ruined plums make the sweetest jam." Dad has a trick easy chair that he likes to spring on guests. One of the least amusing props in movie history, it seems unable to authenticate the notion that something funny has happened when victims are wrenched topsy-turvy. If there's a vantage point that captures the hilarity of such a sit-down-and-fold-up, director Andy Tennant fails to locate it.

Andrew Lane of the New Yorker wittily outed the plot on two counts: the mediocrity of Melanie's supposedly fab dress designs and the personality of Andrew, whose displays of fondness ring unwittingly gay rather than plausibly straight. Ironically, Melanie proves a meanie of an outer when she arrives back in Pigeon Creek and casts public aspersions on former classmate Bobby Ray (Ethan Embry), a harmless fellow whose little secret has been safe with the townsfolk who continue to shelter and value him.

Andrew the ambiguous makes his way to sweet homeland, having allowed Melanie and Jake adequate time to rekindle their passion by insulting each other tiresomely. You would swear they were sitcom characters who need a separation after being cooped up together and exchanging zingers for at least seven seasons.

Mr. Ward gets a chance to spring the trick chair on Candice Bergen, cast as Mr. Dempsey's hard-charging mom. An even more emphatic insult awaits Her Honor when Miss Witherspoon, lending herself to a loathsome form of slapstick, pretends to punch out the older woman.

This haymaker is by way of a reminder that Melanie can jilt an unsuspecting bridegroom if she feels like it. Isn't there something in the Constitution about taking no sass from an indignant prospective mother-in-law? Who's drawing the big bucks on this disgraceful trifle, anyway?

Nothing as expendable as common decency or good judgment can be permitted to block a crowd-pleasing sock in the chops, even if comes as the clinching argument that you have created a wretched excuse for a comic heroine. A fast fade at the box office might be the best wake-up call for the Witherspoon "juggernaut," which obviously has gotten a little grotesque for its rompers.

*

TITLE: "Sweet Home Alabama"

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional comic and sexual vulgarity; fleeting and would-be facetious violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Andy Tennant. Screenplay by C. Jay Cox, based on a story by Douglas J. Eboch.

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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