September 29, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

Congratulations, Reese Witherspoon: You are officially America’s Sweetheart.

Witherspoon’s latest film, “Sweet Home Alabama,” received an incredible homecoming at the box office this weekend, earning $37.5 million in its first weekend, according to studio estimates. Disney executives were quick to point out that “Alabama”’s tally makes it the biggest September opening ever. But it broke another record that’s even more impressive: that of the biggest romantic comedy ever. Until now, Julia Roberts held that benchmark with “Runaway Bride,” which earned $35.1 million in its first weekend. Could this be the changing of the guard for the country’s favorite leading lady? Whatever the outcome, “Alabama” could top the $96.4 million Witherspoon’s “Legally Blonde” grossed last year.

Far behind in second place was “The Tuxedo,” the latest action comedy from Jackie Chan, which premiered with $15.1 million. While nowhere near the $67.4 million Chan grossed with last year’s “Rush Hour 2,” it was right in line with Chan’s last non-“Rush Hour” film, “Shanghai Noon,” which opened with $15.6 million in 2000. Looks like “Tuxedo” costar Jennifer Love Hewitt isn’t a bigger draw than “Shanghai” sidekick Owen Wilson.

Last week’s top film, “Barbershop,” had another impressive showing, slipping only 21 percent in its third week to $10.1 million, while the smash “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” grossed $9.8 million, virtually the same as last week despite playing in a dozen fewer theaters. And Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon rounded out the top five with $5.4 million for “The Banger Sisters,” a 46 percent drop from last weekend. If only Reese had played their much, much younger Banger Sister….

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