`Home' has no solid foundation

September 27, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC



Whither Reese Witherspoon? Watching her incandesce in the role of a 16-year-old girl stumbling through the reform school of hard knocks in the 1996 cult movie Freeway, I was reminded of what Pauline Kael said about John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever: "There is a thick, raw sensuality that some adolescents have which seems almost preconscious."

Usually, when men like Travolta convey that quality, it catapults them to stardom; when women do it, they're considered teen queens who simply project well to the camera. Tuesday Weld never fully overcame that perception problem.

Witherspoon, though, after grabbing Hollywood's attention, set out on a five-year program to prove that she's an actress (in 1999's Election) and a star (in last year's Legally Blonde). Nothing she did matched her work in Freeway, but it was impossible not to see her taking charge of her career - and to cheer her on.

But is a sappy, incompetent vehicle like Sweet Home Alabama her reward? Whatever it does for her financially or for her standing as a pro, it's a punishment for her audience - a romantic comedy that fails to be sexy or funny. As a hell-raising gal from Pigeon Creek, Ala., who reinvents herself as a fashion designer in Manhattan, Witherspoon gets to be the whole show in a show that isn't worth it.

In a twist on a time-honored gimmick, she accepts the proposal of an urbane dreamboat (Patrick Dempsey), the son of New York's first female mayor (Candice Bergen), knowing that back in Pigeon Creek, her first husband (Josh Lucas) didn't sign their divorce papers. She returns there on a marital search-and-destroy mission only to feel the city dweller's equivalent of the call of the wild.

According to this movie's pandering-to-the-heartland vision, the bonding that occurs at cornbread festivals beats what happens at fashion extravaganzas and political benefits up North. We're supposed to revile the heroine's decision to relocate to Gotham, even though none of her friends and family, including her parents (Mary Kay Place and Fred Ward), made any effort to visit her.

In one of the film's many strokes of confusion, Place says she wanted her daughter to effect a clean break, despite the guilt trips she lays on her. We're meant to applaud as the heroine's resolve melts and she begins to feel all fresh and earthy again.

The one shrewd obnoxious stroke in C. Jay Cox's witless and derivative script is to displace all the anger roused by the Witherspoon character's snootiness to Bergen's political ice queen. How you respond to the film depends on how you like the idea of Witherspoon decking Bergen for a crowd-pleasing moment.

The director, Andy Tennant, brought a magical touch to Ever After but couldn't nudge a performance out of Jodie Foster in Anna and the King and betrays slack timing and cornball sensibility here. The embracing of a gay good buddy in Sweet Home Alabama is done with even more of an up-with-people style than the climax of In and Out.

Both Dempsey and Lucas are the object of ogling from the heroine's gay friends, winning easy laughs while underlining that Fred Ward is the only paragon of manly-manliness in this movie. He looks great in a gray Civil War re-enactor's uniform. Too bad his big laugh scenes revolve around his enthusiasm for his new recliner. (Its workings elude city folk).

And Witherspoon? She does the American equivalent of a mechanical British performance: She hits every note too perfectly. There's no shadow to her smile.

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