"Sweet Home Alabama" is one of those films that manages to balance itself out; while it occasionally falls into the expected traps of the genre, there were several stretches that suprised me with strongly played comedy or drama. The film itself stars Reese Witherspoon as Melanie Carmichael, a talented NYC fashion designer who is rising up the ladder of the fashion world, as we see her successful show minutes after the credits roll. She's also engaged to be married to Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), the son of the mayor (Candace Bergen).
While she seems to be living the Cinderella life, there's a few secrets in her past that she has to clear up before she can move forward, including Jake (Josh Lucas), the husband that she married when she was in an Alabama high school. Off she goes down South (Witherspoon is Southern and has no problem with the accent), but will she really decide the past that she ran away from was all that bad?
The answer is fairly obvious and gets largely confirmed early into the picture. Unfortunately, the feeling that the film is spinning its wheels trying to create situations to pull the audience along towards an easily apparent ending does tend to make the middle of the picture feel rather tedious, with a few stretches that start to drag on. Given the fun and occasionally inspired material that the film often comes up with during its 102 minutes, I also think the ending could have been done with a little more imagination.
Still, there are the film's positives, and they are noteworthy. First, the acting is considerably better than I'd expected, given the genre. The film is not the entirely silly affair that the trailers make it out to be and the elements of drama and emotion that occasionally rise to the surface of the story give the actors something to work with. As a result, Witherspoon gives one of her finest performances, keeping her charm level high while also giving her usual effort a bit more range. Josh Lucas and Patrick Dempsey also offer nice performances as Melanie's husband and potential husband. Additionally, I enjoyed the fact that the film is populated with scene-stealers around the edges: New Zelander Melanie Lynskey, who offered a remarkably good New Jersey accent for "Coyote Ugly", goes Southern here in a fine small role. Ethan Embry ("That Thing You Do!"), a very funny and underrated actor, is also entertaining as Melanie's old friend. Candice Bergen is amusing as well, although this seems awfully similar to the kind of character she played in "Miss Congeniality". Aside from the main players, all of the smaller parts are very well portrayed, too.
Technically, the film is quite well done, too. Although director Andy Tennant seems as if he's making a Gary Marshall movie (a few tweaks and this could be "Runaway Bride II", probably), he still offers capable direction (although some parts of the middle could have used an energy boost). "Gosford Park" cinematographer Andrew Dunn has an excellent eye for the city scenes early on and warmly captures the Georgia locations that serve as Alabama during the film's remaining scenes. The film also gets a boost from fine production design, solid costumes, excellent art direction and even nicely done visual effects in a couple of scenes. Actress Charlize Theron even gets an exec producer credit.
Overall, I liked "Sweet Home Alabama". It could have used some tightening up around the middle, but the performances were excellent, the screenplay was fairly well-written and I was entertained more often than not. It should make for a solid date movie as the Fall season opens.