Sweet Home Alabama

(Andy Tennant, USA, 2002)


There are few things more odious in American cinema than the tendency to turn what are deemed social Others into anthropological specimens.

Two groups are especially prone to this mistreatment on screen: the working class, and Southerners.

Sweet Home Alabama, one of the very worst films of 2002, focuses on working class Southerners, so it doubles the aggravation.

Melanie (Reese Witherspoon) is a New York fashion designer who has turned her back on her Southern origins, including a husband, Jake (Josh Lucas).

The plot template harks back to classic screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Melanie has a well-heeled, gentlemanly lover, Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), but the salt-of-the-earth Jake refuses to grant her a divorce. This is the cue for various masquerades and misunderstandings.

Sweet Home Alabama is one of those films that start out badly and just keep sliding into the mire. The supposed comedy of manners is terribly twee, and the predictable liberation of Melanie as she refinds her Southern ways is cringe inducing. Although the lesson of the story is meant to be pro-South, it never ceases being patronising.

Much talent is wasted here. Director Andy Tennant has done some good work, especially in Ever After (1998), but he can do little to enliven C. Jay Cox’s glib script.

The saddest aspect of the whole show is Witherspoon. She is an enormously gifted actor, as films including Election (1999) have shown, but she needs strong direction and a better sense of which projects to choose. After Legally Blonde (2001) and this, she is in danger of being typecast in kitschy, unimaginative fare that wastes her sharp, comedic skills.

MORE Tennant: Anna and the King, Fools Rush In, It Takes Two

© Adrian Martin December 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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