Touchstone Pictures // 2002 // 109 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // February 4th, 2003
Sometimes what you're looking for is right where you left it.
That the Sweet Home Alabama DVD's cover art is Reese Witherspoon alone (with the exception of Bryant the bloodhound) against a stark white background is no accident and no injustice. She owns this film, pure and simple. Remove her, and the whole house of cards tumbles. Don't misunderstand me, this isn't a poorly constructed romantic comedy; it's just not representative of the pinnacle of the genre. Neither is Witherspoon the only actor to deliver a strong performance; the supporting cast is loaded with excellent talent who perform wonderfully. But the romantic comedy is, by its nature, a charisma-dependent genre. Sure, a lead must be able to act, and must have strong comic timing, but in order for a romantic comedy to really work, he or she must also have a presence that dominates the screen. Witherspoon's got it -- she's not just another pretty face. And she succeeds in elevating the film from mediocrity to something solidly entertaining.
Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon, Legally Blonde) is a Southern girl from Greenville, Alabama, on the verge of making her name as a fashion designer in New York City. Complications arise when Melanie's boyfriend, Andrew (Patrick Dempsey) -- son of the city's mayor (Candice Bergen, Murphy Brown) and clearly modeled after John F. Kennedy, Jr. -- proposes marriage. Unbeknownst to the New York glitterati, Melanie is married to Jake (Josh Lucas, A Beautiful Mind), the Alabama boy she fell in love with at the age of 10, but abandoned in order to pursue her dreams in the big city. Despite her repeated requests, Jake has refused to sign divorce papers.
When Melanie returns home to secure her divorce, we learn she's actually from a hodunk town outside Greenville called Pigeon Creek, and she's not a member of the old-money Carmichael family. Stained with a hell-raising, white trash past, "Felony" Melanie Smooter has a chicken-fried steak cookin' mama (Mary Kay Place, The Big Chill), a daddy (Fred Ward, The Right Stuff) who participates in Civil War battle reenactments, and an estranged husband who continues to dig in his heels against signing divorce papers.
It takes all Melanie's ingenuity to keep her past hidden when the mayor -- concerned about her own presidential aspirations -- dispatches a flunky to dig up any skeletons in the closet of her daughter-in-law-to-be, and Andrew pops into Greenville to meet the Carmichaels. Back in Jake's presence, though, Melanie is forced to ask herself if keeping her past a secret is truly what she wants.
Let's get my gripes out of the way first, so I don't leave you with the impression this is a bad film. Sweet Home Alabama has a fairly fundamental flaw, but it doesn't ruin the viewing experience outright. The movie stumbles not so much in its narrative conceit, which is clever enough, nor in its dialogue, which is crisp and smart enough to allow Witherspoon and Lucas plenty of affectionate subtext beneath the hostility, nor in a lack of heart, of which it has plenty, but in director Andy Tennant's (Fools Rush In) ambivalence about the extent to which the culture clash at the film's core can be exploited for laughs. One can feel the filmmaker's struggling to be funny without offending, and the film never manages to settle into a completely comfortable comic rhythm. Properly handled, the movie could have skewered both New York and Southern cultures, while maintaining a fondness for each. Tennant's right in avoiding barefoot, toothless redneck and snooty, abrasive, pretentious New Yorker clichés, which would have reduced the characters to types and made the humor too broad -- a Ma and Pa Kettle for modern audiences -- but he lacks the detailed grasp of Southern culture that would've allowed a more precise and intelligent satire. As a result, the movie plays a delicate game of employing broad stereotypes in one instance, but undermining them by asserting the characters' roundness in the next. For instance, one of Melanie's Pigeon Creek friends, Lurlynn (Melanie Lynskey, Heavenly Creatures), is the sort of white trash that hangs out at honky tonks with her infant slung on her hip, but she also has enough self-awareness (unlike your average Jerry Springer Show redneck) to be genuinely hurt when that trashiness is pointed out to her, even if its just to give the audience a laugh. Sure, her pain makes her more realistically human, but it does so at the expense of comic tone -- the film just never settles satisfactorily into a tonal groove.
Let me give one more example of the sort of eye for concrete cultural differences the film lacks. One of the deleted scenes on the disc is a complex, nicely realized split-screen scene in which various members of the New York characters talk to each other via cell phone. Conversations overlap as each character jumps back and forth, using call waiting and passing phones among each other, carrying on multiple conversations simultaneously. In the introduction to the deleted scene, Tennant states the purpose of the scene was to show how integral cell phones are in the fabric of New York life, and to contrast that against life in Alabama, where things are much simpler. That's cliché and, as well constructed as the scene is, it's just as well it was left out of the final film. A keener observer would've recognized that the cell phones themselves aren't the cultural differentiator and source of laughs because cell phones are nearly as omnipresent in today's Alabama as they are in New York. The content, tone, and pace of a cell phone conversation between a group of New Yorkers contrasted with a parallel conversation between Alabamans would've been funny, and could easily be framed to poke fun at both groups of people.
Still, the film has plenty of charm, and is generally well-written in terms of its overall structure. Aside from an over-the-top punch-out at the film's end, its twists and turns feel natural and succeed in maintaining our interest. I've already stated its greatest asset is Witherspoon, but the supporting cast is pretty outstanding. Josh Lucas is no slouch. He plays Jake as solidly human, managing to express pain and longing beneath the comedy with all the subtlety a film in this genre requires. Like Cary Grant in Howard Hawks' classic, His Girl Friday, Jake knows his lost love better than she knows herself, and spends the entire film nudging her toward self-awareness, demonstrating incredible patience in his understated agony. Plus, Lucas and Witherspoon have good screen chemistry. They fight well with each other. Melanie's other love, Andrew, the destined-for-rejection fiancé, is so honorable at every turn of plot you almost wish he'd behave like a cad so you wouldn't have to pity him his looming fate. He's so good-natured, he echoes Ralph Bellamy's nice guy in His Girl Friday, and Patrick Dempsey plays him to perfection.
And how can you go wrong with experienced actors like Mary Kay Place, Fred Ward, Jean Smart, and Candice Bergen rounding out the cast?
I hope I haven't made Andy Tennant sound like a hack, because he certainly isn't. He may not understand the South with the level of specificity necessary to make the film a top-tier romantic comedy, but he does an awful lot right. Most importantly, the moments of epiphany, scenes in which the comedy is momentarily put aside in the service of heightened emotion, are well-directed. They play as honest emotion instead of gooey, over-the-top nonsense. He draws excellent performances out of his actors.
Tennant's use of the camera is strong if not flashy, and he displays a sensitivity to capturing the non-verbal portions of the actors' performances. He talks a lot in the disc's commentary about film's ability to capture human beings in thought as well as changes in emotion expressed in subtle shifts in an actor's eyes, facial expression, posture. Indeed, the film is full of those little moments. The DVD does a fine job of presenting the director's work. Presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, the video has a very film-like quality, with bold but natural colors, solid blacks, and just a touch of grain. It's a very nice transfer.
The 5.1 surround track is excellent as well, crisp and full-bodied. With the exception of the film's score, there's little use of surrounds, of course, but dialogue is crystal clear and there's no sign of hiss.
Most interesting among the disc's extras are the eight deleted scenes. Each is introduced by Tennant, who goes through the usual explanation of the rigors of film editing and a director's pain in removing loved scenes in the best interest of the overall pacing and narrative dynamics of the movie. What makes these scenes more interesting than those found on other discs is that many of them involve the removal of a single character from the film because test audiences were left with the wrong impression that Andrew slept with her behind Melanie's back, yanking him right out of Ralph Bellamy nice guy territory. An entire subplot was removed, but the film is better for it. There's also an excellent scene between Witherspoon and Jean Smart, who plays Melanie's mother-in-law. It's funny and warm and succeeds in expressing a genuine fondness and respect between the two characters (Tennant says it's his favorite from the shoot and he never would've guessed it wouldn't end up in the final film). In addition to the eight scenes, there's an alternate ending which is much darker than the one in the final film. Test audiences found it so disturbing it had to be reshot.
Tennant's commentary is smart and articulate. It's worth a spin, but would've benefited from another voice -- Witherspoon's, perhaps.
Sweet Home Alabama has its flaws, but it's still a fun and entertaining romantic comedy.
Review content copyright © 2003 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio Commentary with Director Andy Tennant
* Off The Cutting Room Floor -- Eight Deleted Scenes with Introductions by Andy Tennant
* Alternate Ending with Introduction by Andy Tennant
* "Mine All Mine" Music Video by SHeDaisy