Turning to the F/X network and finding an old “M.A.S.H.” rerun. Opening that letter from Ed McMahon and learning you actually haven’t won a million dollars. Summer following spring. Winter following fall. Life is just filled with things that aren’t surprising in the least but among the least surprising things you’re likely ever to come across is “Sweet Home Alabama.”
A tribute to tired cliches, the latest festival of formula from Andy (“It Takes Two”) Tennant provides Reese Witherspoon with the least intriguing role of her career. The actress plays a twentysomething southern belle who’s turned her back on her downscale roots to pursue a career as an uptown Manhattan fashion designer. When the mayor of New York’s dashing son (Patrick Dempsey) rents out Tiffany’s, gets down on one knee and proposes to her, she accepts. Before she can live happily ever after though, there’s a little matter she has to run home to clear up. Turns out she’s still married to her childhood sweetheart even though the two haven’t spoken to one another during the seven years Witherspoon’s lived in the Big Apple.
One reason what follows is surprise-free is the script by C. Jay Cox. It’s a virtual inventory of hackneyed romantic comedy devices. Another is the fact that every comic moment and plot development of consequence is contained in the film’s trailer and that’s been playing in theaters since, what, last Thanksgiving?
As the previews reveal, Dempsey’s character is a twinkle-eyed JFK Jr. type, an honest to god Prince Charming who doesn’t have an unlikeable bone in his body. His mother the mayor, on the other hand, is a standard issue bitch on wheels played with sitcom bluster by Candice Bergen. She flies into a rage when she hears about her son’s engagement, immediately dispatching henchmen and gofers to dig up dirt on the bride to be.
The trailer also tells us everything we need to know about her old beau. As played by Josh Lucas-who could pass for a scale model of Matthew McConaughey-the guy’s a twinkle-eyed good ol boy who’s refused to sign off on a divorce because, deep down, he believes Reese will one day come to her senses and come home.
And, guess what? She comes back home, runs into one old friend after another and even patches things up with her estranged ma and pa, a couple of refugees from “Hee Haw” played by Mary Kay Place and Fred Ward. All the while, it goes without saying, Witherspoon rekindles affection for the people and places she left behind and, by the time Dempsey pays an unexpected visit, it’s anybody’s guess whether she’ll choose bachelor number one or bachelor number two. And when I say “anybody’s guess,” I mean a coma victim could see this movie’s ending coming fifteen minutes in.
The picture is the latest in a long line of Hollywood product designed to romanticize rural life while pitting quirky but right-thinking hayseeds against uppity city slickers for comic effect. From “Doc Hollywood” through “Hope Floats” and, most recently, Mr. Deeds, it’s a tradition that’s long on history and short on cinematic invention. Charming as its star may be, Tennant’s contribution to the genre proves the rule rather than the exception. “Sweet Home Alabama” goes south early and its director never comes close to turning things around.