(PG-13) 3 stars Reese Witherspoon has a real knack for finding movies that sound horrible on paper but play just fine on screen. Last year, she starred in Legally Blonde, a movie that took a flat-out embarrassing premise - Valley Girl goes to Harvard - and turned it into a surprisingly engaging comedy. Mind you, we"re not talking high art here: The film was still a trifle, it was just a much more pleasant trifle than most of us ever thought it could be.
Sweet Home Alabama works similar magic. The premise - before marrying Prince Charming in NYC, a young woman must return to her roots in Hooterville - sounds terrible. But Witherspoon once again chose her material with great care and the production succeeds as a good-natured little romantic comedy that scraps ugly stereotypes about the Old South and replaces them with benign stereotypes about the New South. Sweet Home Alabama is the cinematic equivalent of a corndog: It"s made of material that is questionable at best and it has no nutritional value, but, as you eat it fresh from the deep fryer, it tastes pretty damn good. Witherspoon plays Melanie Carmichael, a hot young fashion designer in Manhattan. Hours before her biggest show yet, her boyfriend Andrew Hennings (Patrick Dempsey), son of the mayor (Candace Bergen) and one of the city"s most eligible bachelors, blindfolds her and whisks her away in a limo. When he removes the black silk cloth, she finds herself standing in the middle of Tiffany"s, surrounded by diamonds and salesclerks with forced smiles. She accepts his marriage proposal and quickly finds herself back in the limo, sporting a ring with a rock on it the size of a headlight. When the jubilant young man mutters, "I can"t wait to see the look on my mother"s face when she finds out about this," Melanie gets a perturbed expression but says nothing, no doubt anxious to avoid a nasty case of M.E.P. (movie ending prematurely). Indeed, Andrew"s mother is horrified by the pending nuptials, but Melanie doesn"t have time to notice. She"s too busy frantically organizing a trip back to her hometown of Pigeon Creek, Ala., to get her childhood sweetheart Jake Perry (Josh Lucas) to sign the final divorce papers from their marriage. So Little Miss Sophisticated New Yorker ends up in Hicksville, U.S.A., the very place she struggled so hard to escape from. Now this is the point where I would normally post a SPOILER WARNING, but surely you must know how the rest of the story will go. If not, congratulations on sounding out the long words and getting so far into this article! Jake, of course, turns out to be a diamond in the rough, starting off dirt-covered and rude, but growing more handsome and gallant with each successive scene. Melanie, of course, turns out to be a self-absorbed poseur (I believe Jake uses the term "hoity-toity") badly in need of some life lessons. As the story plays out, we meet the people of Pigeon Creek, which turns out to be a bucolic, contemporary Mayberry. Melanie"s parents (Fred Ward and Mary Kay Place) are gentle, sleepy souls still living in their old trailer. They love their daughter unconditionally, although her pretensions often make them wince, albeit slowly. Her mother-in-law Stella (Jean Smart) is a natural hostess who runs the local honky-tonk, and her old buddy Bobby Joe (doe-eyed Ethan Embry) is a closeted gay man who remains in the closet so that he can continue to drink, scratch and spit with the other guys. How idyllic is Pigeon Creek? When Melanie inadvertently "outs" Bobby Joe at the honky-tonk, he races away in anger and shame. The next time he sees the guys, they act a bit standoffish, but when Jake gently chides them, they immediately exchange "Aw Shucks" glances and welcome their sheepish-looking brother back into the fold. It"s all cheesy as can be, which is the appeal of the film. Remember Swiss Family Robinson? The people were impossibly nice, the story totally predictable and nothing in the production looked or seemed even faintly realistic, but it was a wonderful place to visit. Sweet Home Alabama, also from Disney, offers a low-rent Wal-Mart version of paradise. Despite all the hokum, I was more than willing to tour the place for an hour and a half and likely will pop in for a return visit. Turn your nose up if you will, but that will only mean that you"re one of those hoity-toity types.