Those of us who consider Reese Witherspoon the thinking man's Drew Barrymore have plenty of reason to be disappointed by "Sweet Home Alabama," a hamfisted romantic comedy that makes our girl the hapless facilitator of an extended cheap shot across the Mason-Dixon line. Witherspoon is Melanie Carmichael, a New York City fashion designer engaged to be married to the mayor's son (Patrick Dempsey, whose emergence as a romantic lead is yet another sure sign of the Apocalypse). But first, Melanie has to return home to Pigeon Creek, Ala., to wrest an overdue divorce from her foot-dragging first husband (Josh Lucas).
This setup is meant to inspire catfish-out-of-water gags at every turn, and they might connect were Witherspoon not so (surprisingly) ineffective in portraying the gradual resumption of Dixie mannerisms and linguistics that is essential to Melanie's character arc. The remnants of a decent movie are most visible in the good work done by the supporting actors who play Melanie's friends and relations. Jean Smart, who was so funny as the lustful neighbor in "The Brady Munch Movie," strikes all the right notes as Melanie's barkeep of a mother-in-law.
Working against the movie's illusion of open-heartedness are its ongoing and overt attempts to make the New York characters (especially Candice Bergen's ice queen of a mayor) appear venal and/or anal in comparison to the Alabamans, who are submitted as the proverbial salt of the Earth. Forget the World Trade Center, it's open season on New Yorkers again at a theater near you. The movie even assumes that we'll take the "good" side in the Civil War re-enactments that are presented as a Pigeon Creek tradition. If the white-supremacist demo really needs a cinema of its own, why not go all the way and show these reg'lar folks renewing their common bonds over a good old-fashioned lynchin'?