I know Reese Witherspoon can do better than Sweet Home Alabama, but I'm worried she's going to be pigeon-holed now. After she bloomed so successfully in Legally Blonde, Hollywood probably saw the opportunity to market her in the usual way. After all, what do you do with all those pretty, popular young actresses who have a gift for comic timing? You stick them in factory-assembled romantic comedies, of course.
I'd hate to see this happen to Witherspoon. I don't want her falling into the Meg Ryan trap of using only cuteness to win an audience. This actress has talent and charisma, and is steadily building a core of loyal followers who look forward to her next movie. She showed wickedness in Election and good-hearted determination in Legally Blonde. Furthermore, Election gave us a scathing cross-section of high school agendas, while Legally Blonde promoted girl-power and took a pickaxe to the "dumb blonde" stereotype. They were comedies with brains.
Sweet Home Alabama is not. If Witherspoon stepped into a lighter, fluffier movie, she would have blown away in the wind. It may have a nice message to spread -- i.e., you don't have to be embarrassed by your background -- but it does so by using broad stereotypes of Southerners, big city denizens, and fashion industry professionals. It adds nothing to an overused main story about finding out that Mr. Right was right under your nose all along. It's a fairy tale you've heard before, with nothing special to get your attention -- no zip, no snap, no zing.
Trying their best to keep the boat afloat are the actors, who all do a fine job with their limited characters, making them more lifelike than the script may have intended them to be. Fred Ward convincingly plays a father who has obviously mellowed out through the years, now content with his life and his hobbies. His wife is played by Mary Kay Place, whose face conveys frustration with her daughter's clashing ideals. The men in the main character's life are both sympathetic and worth rooting for, thanks to strong presences by Josh Lucas and Patrick Dempsey.
And Withserspoon herself is the one who holds it together, naturally. As watchable as she is, though, it's sad to see there isn't anything special about her character to give her room to shine. She displays a bit of mean-spiritedness in the early part of the movie, but her character softens up soon and, from that point on, heads toward basic-romantic-comedy-heroine territory. The movie then focuses on nothing more than those events which will steer her toward Mr. Right, and Witherspoon can only go along for the ride.
I'm also disappointed about the way the film ended. Facing the traditional romantic comedy quandary of "What's the best way to dispose of Mr. Almost-Right?", this movie's attempt to come up with a solution is awkward, unconvincing, and unsatisfactory. But will it matter to audiences who are looking for a harmless, less-than-two-hour distraction for an evening's entertainment? Probably not. Hopefully, that doesn't mean Witherspoon will be pegged only for formula films in the future.
(Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com)
Released by Buena Vista Pictures and rated "PG-13" for some language and sexual references.