(Review Written 9/02)
"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 obvious 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.
VIDEO: Buena Vista Home Video presents "Sweet Home Alabama" in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is not a transfer without a few minor flaws, but it's certainly still a luminous, attractive piece of work, showing off Andrew Dunn's enjoyable cinematography and the natural beauty of some of the Southern locations. The picture is ever-so-slightly soft by design, but detail is still very pleasing, with fine details apparent.
The presentation is one of those where a few little concerns scattered about are the only thing keeping it from being a better effort. Slight edge enhancement is present in a couple of scenes, but it's hardly that noticable. The picture also doesn't appear as grainy here as it did when I viewed an early screening late last year. Very light grain is still present here and there, but it's not consistently present. A couple of traces of artifacts are spotted too, but most likely won't notice.
The film's natural and warm color palette is presented well here and actually, looks a shade richer than it did when I saw the film theatrically. Black level remains solid throughout, while flesh tones looked accurate and natural. Not without some concerns, but still a very nice transfer.
SOUND: "Sweet Home Alabama" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. This is a traditional comedy soundtrack, although it does have a few pleasant surprises throughout. The surrounds are hardly put to much use during the picture, although some slight ambience is occasionally offered by the rear speakers. Where the presentation succeeds is with the music: although front-focused, the surrounds do offer nice reinforcement for the tunes. The film's pop-music soundtrack really comes through with a rich, dynamic sound that's very pleasing. Dialogue remains clear and natural throughout. Note: Both the 2/4/03 Buena Vista titles that I've reviewed (this and "Ultimate X") allow viewers to switch between audio tracks via the remote, something that BV/Disney titles never allowed in the past, as far as I know. Hopefully, this will continue.
EXTRAS: Director Andy Tennant provides a fairly good audio commentary for the picture. Tennant provides a good general overview of the production, leading the audience through the details of each scene and disussing some other general topics, such as locations, casting and how terrible the film's dog was to work with. There's not much else to round out the supplements: a music video and eight deleted scenes/an alternate ending, both the latter offering intros from director Andy Tennant.
Final Thoughts: "Sweet Home Alabama" is pleasant romantic comedy fare, with fine performances and well-played romance and comedy. It's a little unfocused at times and could have used tightening, but it's still worth a look for those seeking a date-night rental or those who are fans of Witherspoon. Buena Vista's DVD edition provides solid audio/video quality, along with a few decent supplements.