Sweet Home Alabama Review
It's been a long time since Hollywood's female stars held their own against the men. Throughout the 80s and 90s, male stars dominated mainstream films and actresses were usually relegated to playing the star's girlfriend. Now the tables are finally turning as a new generation of glamour queens fresh from the cover of Hello magazine - Catherine Zeta Jones, Renee Zellweger, Cameron Diaz - join Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock as big draws for a female audience bored with special effects and boys in lycra. Last weekend, Jennifer Lopez beat the crew of the Enterprise to the top spot at the US box office with Maid In Manhattan and, a couple of months ago, Sweet Home Alabama grossed $35 million in its first three days on the strength of its star Reese Witherspoon, possibly the most popular of them all.
Though only 26, Witherspoon has been around for over 10 years and made a strong impression on the handful of us who saw her 1991 debut, The Man In The Moon. Since then she's been memorable in such diverse films as Best Laid Plans, Freeway, Cruel Intentions and Pleasantville and she was extraordinary as a scary high school student in the dark satire Election. She finally hit the big time last year with Legally Blonde, a sequel to which is due next summer, and the success of Sweet Home Alabama confirms her place on Hollywood's A-list.
She plays Melanie Carmichael, up and coming New York fashion designer and a woman who has it all, including a handsome, doting boyfriend, the mayor's son no less, who has just proposed to her in Tiffany's and offered her the ring of her choice. Let's pause for a moment while every woman reading this is brought round with smelling salts. There's just one hitch. Melanie is already married - to her high school sweetheart in the small Alabama town she ran away from. They've been separated for years but he's always refused to sign the divorce papers so she reluctantly drives down to confront him.
Naturally Melanie is appalled to be back in her small town, naturally her husband (John Lucas) is still mad at her for leaving and naturally there is much friction between them as she tries to get the papers signed and get back to New York... and naturally Melanie finds she still has feelings for the guy and misses the friendly atmosphere of her home town. Of course it's predictable, it's a romantic comedy. When was the last time one ended with Meg Ryan saying she only wanted to be friends and Tom Hanks blowing his brains out? You expect the conventions to be honoured but you also expect the filmmakers to make you forget the happy ending is pre-ordained. Pretty Woman, When Harry Met Sally and Ten Things I Hate About You worked so well because they were about three dimensional characters who were funny and interesting and seemed to be in charge of their own destinies. Sweet Home Alabama isn't in that league. It's half an hour too long and it's too artificial, the characters second hand and the plot mechanics obvious. It's not exactly a bad movie - the cast is fine and it's pleasant enough viewing if you go on a date or a girls' night out - but you really will have seen it all before.
How it went down in Alabama I can only guess at. Hollywood is often criticised for being insensitive to foreign cultures but its patronising attitude to Americans who live outside the major cities is truly awe-inspiring. These southerners drive their pick-ups to the road house, re-enact Civil War battles and live in run-down shacks with their big, floppy-eared hounds. For the record, I didn't notice anyone spitting tobacco. Oh and just so's we city folk don't figure them there hicks are bigots or nothin', a minor character is revealed to be gay and no one minds.