”Fetching Reese Witherspoon look-alike enjoys big-city cocktail parties and piggyback rides on the beach. Is comfortable in black Armani and old jeans, can charm blue bloods and rednecks. Seeks the opposite of whatever she has, whenever she has it. Is worth the trouble. Really, she is.”
Ah, life is a well of contradictions as deep as a personals ad for Melanie Carmichael, played by the actual, fetching Witherspoon in the shallow romantic comedy Sweet Home Alabama. ”Mel” is a fiery Southern rebel who scampers out on her poor-boy high school-era husband, Jake (Josh Lucas), conquers fancy-pants New York City as a fashion designer, and snags Andrew, her wealthy, dishy, Big Apple fiancé (Patrick Dempsey) who happens to be the son of the mayor (Candice Bergen).
Mel’s urban life is a whirlwind of women’s-fiction fantasies — the media success, the princely marriage proposal in the jewel-box aisles of Tiffany’s, the best friends who are (1) black and gay, and (2) British. But when she scoots back to Alabama to obtain a little ol’ divorce once and for all from dirty, down-home Jake (her childhood sweetheart, her soul mate, and he’s kee-yoot when he cleans up), the lady finds herself attracted once again to the real-folks comforts of the Southern barefoot life — as opposed to the pretentious Northern kingdom of Manolo Blahniks.
Stereotyped and pandering, in a mealy Hollywood way, to dingbat notions of New York City power-brokering and Deep South bubbahood? You bet, darlin’. As Andrew’s meddling mother, Bergen, armored in the same exaggerated snootiness she brought to ”Miss Congeniality,” is perhaps no more a figure of faintly unpleasant derision than Mary Kay Place as Melanie’s kitsch-loving mama among the pickle jars. (Melanie’s taciturn papa, played by Fred Ward, is devoted to his busted easy chair and to elaborate Civil War reenactments the movie isn’t sure whether to honor or parody.) But as calibrated by director Andy Tennant (”Ever After”) from a story by Douglas J. Eboch and script by C. Jay Cox, the advantage goes to the good people of Not the Big City, who may not trust ambition but who value good friends and a good local juke joint. Apparently, if you’ve got to have money (and Jake turns out not to be quite the shlub Melanie thinks he is), the least objectionable way to throw it around is to buy rounds for your buddies.
All of which would make ”Sweet Home Alabama” unbearable were Witherspoon not such a genuinely attractive performer. Pinning her easy, roll-with-the-punches performance between gestures of city elegance and those of country spunk, the Nashville-born actress manages, from time to time, to give Melanie (and, by extension, her two handsome admirers) a dignity and autonomy the script itself doesn’t know what to do with. While the movie stomps and hollers otherwise, this mature young star quietly declares that, fiddle-dee-dee, either Mister Right is fine, and hardly worth fighting a war over.