New York fashion designer Melanie Carmichael has the world at her feet - even the mayor's son has just proposed to her. But before she can tie the knot, Melanie must return to her Southern roots. And, back home in Alabama, there are more than a few skeletons in amongst the sweet potato pies.
Sweet Home Alabama raked in a record-breaking $35 million in its opening weekend, and judged on opening weekends, Reese is now officially bigger than Julia.The $20 million pay cheque is surely in the post, but Sweet Home Alabama proves that she's worth every last cent.
Few actresses of Witherspoon's generation could so successfully grab hold of the darker currents beneath this slight fairy tale's surface and pull it upstream against a tide of rom-com clichés. It's the dramatic aspects of this feel-good movie that set it apart. Before it settles down snugly into a formulaic final act, the film visits areas of character psychology where your typical Hollywood fluff fears to tread.
It starts off in make-believe mode, with cute and sparky Melanie (Witherspoon) wowing the New York fashion elite and indulging in romantic overload as the mayor's son, Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), proposes to her in Tiffany's, of all places. Then, with a nod to Witherspoon's previous box office clout, the story takes on a Legally Blonde form, as the snooty city sophisticate goes on a fish-out-of-water trip back to her smalltown Southern roots.
All the comedy contrasts you'd expect are present and correct. But, as Melanie's checked-shirt past starts to show through the cracks of her designer-clad present, there's more on offer here than first meets the eye. Why exactly has Melanie reinvented herself? Why is she so ashamed of her loving family? Isn't she - now that we're scrutinising her more closely - rather selfish, rude and condescending? In other words, she's not the lightweight heroine who floats through other romantic comedies. And so, as both Melanie and the audience come to realise that the Manhattan world she has created for herself is indeed a fantasy land that's at odds with the person she really is, it takes an actress of Witherspoon's calibre to keep us on her side.
That cute girl-next-door persona is just the bait: she really does have the dramatic ability to guide us through the character's less appealing points and towards a happy ending. On the way, unfortunately, we're forced to travel roads inhabited by Southern stereotypes, cheesy sob scenes and a couple of turnarounds (Dempsey's Andrew especially) that seem to be more plot-driven than character-credible. It's hardly a documentary, but you get the feeling that this particular homely Southern scene has had the more troubling bits airbrushed out. Where are the black faces? And would these good ol' boys really accept the unexpected 'outing' of one of their own quite so readily?
So, despite Witherspoon's best efforts (and those of a decent supporting cast, particularly Josh Lucas as her Southern beau and Ethan Embry as her abandoned best friend), there's not enough here to fulfil an across-the-boards crowd. Fans of the rom-com, however, should be ready to book their place at My Big Fat Redneck Wedding.
The darker, more interesting material isnt really able to breathe but at least its there. And, in Reese Witherspoon, weve not only got a box office phenomenon, weve got an actress of considerable talent.