I don’t get home as often as I should. Whether by design or simply stressful circumstance is probably good fodder for psychoanalytical observation, but deep down somewhere inside I’m just a small town Texas boy who escaped to big city life. Sometimes you don’t want to go back. Maybe you don’t even want to remember. But for a small town kid who abandoned his redneck ways for the big bright city, Sweet Home Alabama strikes a chord.
That’s something you won’t hear many critics admit, since by their very nature they must be “big city folk.” So perhaps that itself is why so many have sat out on praising Reese Witherspoon’s latest, in which she returns to her Alabama country roots after her own escape to the “Big Apple.” Or perhaps they’re just more objective than I am. Because even though Sweet Home Alabama is so deeply genuine and heartfelt; it tosses at least some of that away by setting itself up in a winless situation.
I’d argue that Sweet Home is in fact not primarily a love story, but judging from the film’s marketing campaign there are a lot of weasely executive types who might disagree. Certainly it begins with a love story, in which we find up and coming fashion designer Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon) living a fabulous New York life and becoming engaged to the city’s wealthiest and most eligible bachelor. But with all things in life, there’s a catch and she must return to her hometown of Pidgeon, Alabama where we discover seven years ago she ran away from a life and a marriage to make something of herself in New York. Now, estranged from husband, family, and town she returns to seek divorce and escape back to New York.
Reese is typically charming and believably lacking in Southern pride. Yet when soon-to-be-ex husband Jake (Josh Lucas) refuses to make their divorce quick an easy, she’s stuck spending time exactly where she doesn’t want to be… home. From there, Alabama becomes not so much a silly romantic triangle but a realistic and genial look at what it’s like to be a part of and leave behind southern small town life.
There’s nothing really cool about being from a small town. Despite what you may have heard, there’s also nothing all that sexy about being the farmer’s daughter. Melanie, as anyone might be, is ashamed of who she was and where she once was from. Mixed with light and honest humor, Melanie takes an emotional journey to remember just what it was she left behind.
What really makes it a winner though, is the incredible amount of care that Director Andy Tennant and screenwriter C. Jay Cox put in to really capturing the essence of real southern small town living. I’ve heard Reese herself comment in interview that she felt it important to capture what it’s really like growing up in rural Alabama, being a small town southern girl herself. Well, not only she but everyone involved with this film apparently had that laudable goal. Long nights sitting on the water tower talking about nothing, town dances to the tune of Bama pride, double-wide trailers with a front porch built on, these are the things that are part of memories belonging to anyone who grew up in that somewhat simple life.
But then again, Sweet Home Alabama is supposed to be a romance. Sadly it’s only here that it really seems to falter. It isn’t that Melanie’s romantic involvements aren’t believable; nor that they aren’t in some way meaningful. The difficulty is that Alabama’s writers have set her up in a love triangle with no real winners. Both of the men with whom Reese’s character becomes involved are genuinely good and likable people with both of them in their own way deeply in love with her character. So whom do we root for? The ending turns out predictably but anyone with a heart has to find it difficult to be all that happy with the outcome no matter who wins her hand. They all deserve happiness, but Sweet Home Alabama, a movie that deserves a wholly happy and satisfying ending has from its very beginning deprived itself of the means with which to achieve it.
Though the romance is a bust, or perhaps too involved, the film itself carries through on a heartfelt and almost painfully genuine combination of acting and script. Surrounded with a talented cast of romantic leads and hometown folks, Reese Witherspoon, as always, shines in a role that for once involves a least a little more than being cute. I suppose objectivity could prompt me to go the other way and label this a well-meaning failure. But love of movies that can connect in a personal way with an intended audience spurns me to declare it an overall success. Don’t plan on the perfect ending, but Sweet Home Alabama hits the mark with critics who escaped from a small town life.