Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Sweet Home Alabama (2002)

Dir. Andy Tennant
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Josh Lucas, Patrick Dempsey, Candice Bergen

Sweet Home Alabama is never going to win any awards for originality. Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon) is an up and coming fashion designer in New York City, tipped as ‘the one to watch’ – and this is before Andrew Hennings (Patrick Dempsey) the playboy son of NYC’s mayor proposes to her in Tiffany’s. There is just one small problem – Melanie’s background is a lie. She grew up as Melanie Smooter in Pigeon Creek, Alabama, was a teenage tearaway – oh, and is still married to her childhood boyfriend Jake (Josh Lucas). Cue a trip away from the bright lights of the big city and into the Deep South to get Jake to sign divorce papers. Along the way she reconnects with her roots and reassesses what is truly important to her. The ending should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen even one romantic comedy before.

Yet for it to be a successful romantic comedy I would say that it requires two key ingredients: romance and comedy. And Sweet Home Alabama does not particularly deliver on either of those points. There are elements of romance – but the main one is Andrew’s proposal in Tiffany’s. He’s the wrong guy! In comparison Jake is resolutely unromantic – he and Mel originally got married because she was pregnant, and he was so drunk at their wedding he threw up down her dress and missed the reception. There are moments that the writers clearly felt hit the mark such as Mel’s kissing of Jake at the graveside of their dog (I’m not entirely sure why she suddenly does that) or her seeking him out on a storm-lashed beach (where I was at the very least expecting a bolt of lightning and a comment along the lines of “Maybe lightning does strike twice”). Both these moments are instigated by Melanie, not Jake. Nor are there any particularly noteworthy comedy performances – though Candice Bergen as the hypocritical mayor of New York does grab the lion’s share of what there is (sample: “There is nothing wrong with poor people. I get elected by poor people”). Pigeon Forge is populated by a cast of people who almost verge on cliché but who just fall short. This is no Craggy Island populated by local eccentrics, save for one elderly Confederate colonel who spends his time blowing up anvils. The townsfolk are her friends, friends who missed her. They are tolerant and forgiving. Even when a drunken Melanie outs former best friend Billy Ray (Ethan Embry) in the local bar he forgives her. If anything the film is a confused morality tale – don’t go chasing after your dreams ladies, and if you do, make sure you come back home to settle down and be a baby-mama afterwards.
A dumb stubborn redneck hick and a hoity-toity
Yankee bitch - it'll never work!

What have I learnt about Alabama?
Well, all the clichés are there – mullets, screen doors, line dancing, women with four children, names like ‘Lurlynn’ and ‘Billy Ray’. Hell, even the ghosts of the South make an appearance in a Confederate re-enactment troupe in which Melanie’s father is a member. But the local characters never quite turn into caricatures: “Just ‘cause I talk slow doesn’t mean I’m stupid!” They are left stranded half-way between normality and eccentricity.

Alabama is defined by what it is not – specifically New York. The lakes and community festivals of Pigeon Creek are a world away from the graffiti and red carpets of NYC, and that’s just the way they like it. The folks back home take more time over local interaction (the local bank won’t install an ATM because it might lessen face-to-face contact); in comparison the New Yorkers appear brusque, selfish and rude. This is particularly the case with the angling politico mayor but also Melanie herself. “How can you live like this?” she asks her former friends. She calls Jake a “dumb stubborn redneck hick”; in return he calls her a “hoity-toity Yankee bitch”.
Really, the film could have been set anywhere away from the big city. It’s a basic story contrasting southern hospitality with Yankee brashness. It just so happens that there is a famous song called ‘Sweet Home Alabama’; if there had been a smash hit called ‘Sweet Home South Carolina’ the movie might have been set there instead. The setting isn’t important; the moral is.

Can we go there?
I remember an American tourist advert encouraging us to go to different places in the US and not just New York / Las Vegas / California / Florida. It did this by showing scenes from movies mentioning the states. One of these was Sweet Home Alabama. They obviously learnt well from Mel’s lies about her background because actually only a very few shots of Alabama exist in the movie. The rest of the locations used for her Alabaman home town of Pigeon Creek (which is supposedly near Greenville) were in – you guessed it – Georgia. Crawfordville, east of Atlanta and half-way towards Augusta, was the main stand in, though the Carmichael Plantation, that Melanie claims to be her home, is actually called Oak Hill and is well north-west of Atlanta in Mt Berry.

Overall Rating: 1/5

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