Reviewed by Carla Freccero
Alabama, directed by Andy Tennant, is currently number one at
the box office. It's playing locally at Aptos Cinemas, Santa Cruz
Cinema 9, Scotts Valley 6 and Green Valley Cinemas. The film stars
Reese Witherspoon as Melanie Carmichael, a.k.a. Melanie Smooter;
and Josh Lucas (Jake) and Patrick Dempsey (Andrew) as unwitting
rivals for her affection.
The plot is reasonably predictable. Small-town southern girl makes
it big in New York City as a fashion designer and as the sweetheart
of the mayor's son Andrew Hennings (the mayor, by the way, is
played by Candice Bergen). On the occasion of her betrothal to
this political heir and cosmopolitan liberal, Melanie returns
to Alabama to sever her ties with her first true love and husband.
We then witness the unfolding of the perennial struggle between
down-home American, white-bread, Confederate roots and those Yankee
liberal ways one learns when one wanders too far from home. It's
about not turning your back on home and remembering your true
Witherspoon is an accomplished comedic actress, but the male talent
she works with here leaves much to be desired. The women, on the
other hand, are pretty good, from Bergen to Reese's mom Pearl
(played by Mary Kay Place); Josh's mom Stella (played by Jean
Smart), and Melanie's childhood female friend Lurlynn, played
by Melanie Lynskey. The setting is not Alabama, but Florida, Georgia,
and South Carolina, as though first, most Americans didn't really
know or care where that state is or what it looks like, and as
though the director realized that rural Alabama is just too poverty-stricken
to appeal to a white middle-class roots-loving homey-type audience.
. . and that much of its poverty is also African American.
It's hard to imagine what the appeal of Melanie's hometown is,
given the movie's condescending attitude: everyone agrees there's
nothing to do but make trouble, become a loser, have babies, or
get out. And yet, and yet . . . to be true to yourself, the movie
suggests, you have to own your boring life and stop thinking you
can be glamorous, successful, and have fun-especially if you are
a woman and especially if you are from the south. That's why,
I think, the women in this movie are so moving. Even as the film
disciplines them into submission, their commentary on life's disappointments
rings achingly true. And the guy who tries to make himself worthy
of the girl who left him for better things also gets under your
skin. They both turn out to be artists: one, by covering nature
with beauty, the other by uncovering the beauty of nature. There's
a lesson there, but I don't see what that has to do with the difference
between Alabama and New York City.
Sweet Home Alabama is funny and heartwarming, but it's also a
movie that tries to shame ambitious girls back into family, marriage,
and the class from whence they came, even though it can't quite
bear to show us the true starkness it suggests resides in home
sweet home. Either way, these are clearly also white folks' troubles,
which is why, I suppose, we're allowed to wax nostalgic and sentimental
when the old men get dressed up to go out on the battlefield and
lose the Civil War all over again.
Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang,
this is Carla Freccero.