Sweet Home Alabama at 20 | A Lighthearted Film From a Fondly Missed Era
The early 2000s gave us some of the most delightful romantic comedies that were responsible for making household names out of their female leads. From Sandra Bullock’s hilarious role in Miss Congeniality to Jennifer Lopez’s endearing presence in Maid in Manhattan, rom-coms from this era in particular have made a long-lasting impression. On its 20th anniversary, it seems natural to commemorate one of the quintessential “chick flicks”: Sweet Home Alabama.
The year after her standout performance in 2001’s Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon delved into her southern roots in Sweet Home Alabama, directed by Andy Tennant. Witherspoon plays Melanie Carmichael, a southern belle turned into one of New York City’s hottest fashion designers. She becomes engaged to her boyfriend Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), the wealthy and politically aspiring son of the city’s mayor (Candace Bergen). In order to move forward with a wedding, Melanie needs to return to her hometown in rural Alabama after seven years away to have her childhood sweetheart (and estranged husband), Jake (Josh Lucas), sign divorce papers. Seems simple enough, right? Well, if that were the case, the movie would have been over in 15 minutes. Thanks to Jake’s stubbornness and Melanie’s poor attempt at a nice greeting, the story continues with friend and family reunions, revisits to old haunts, and the occasional civil war reenactment that doubles down on Melanie’s southern routes.
While the main plot of the film can only create so much conflict, the story shifts to a subplot involving Andrew’s untrusting mother. Bergen’s character begins digging into Melanie’s background to protect her son’s future in politics. As the audience learns quickly, Melanie had left her country roots to “get out” and to make something of herself and her career. Her ability to do so came at the cost of lying about her upbringing and, ultimately, looking down upon the friends and family who love small-town living (and her). It is this situation that reminds Melanie of what, as well as who, she has truly left behind. A rekindling of old feelings for her former flame brings forth deeper complications within our lead character. Even with its astounding predictability, a familiar sense of satisfaction results like a glass of ice-cold sweet tea at the end of a sweltering summer day.
Though not revered by critics at the time, such as Scott Tobias from avclub.com who writes: “…Country trounces city again in Sweet Home Alabama, a romantic comedy so cozily formulaic that the title more or less gives away the ending”, this film contains noteworthy moments that deserve to be revisited. For instance, who can forget the movie’s iconic scene featuring a Tiffany and Co. store flooded with diamond rings, a romantic engagement, and Dempsey’s character telling Witherspoon’s Melanie to “Pick one”? Who can forget the endless buffet of country music in the soundtrack that has to play its title song once or twice? And who can forget the wholesome Bobby Ray (played by Ethan Embry) who is outed as gay by a drunken Melanie at the local bar? Though Melanie’s actions are in poor taste, they inspire a rather progressive scene for its time that shows some well-deserved love to the character – just another reason why this movie is the film that keeps on giving.
Sweet Home Alabama is a story of second chances, righting wrongs, and accepting who you are. Is it perfect? Well, no. With characters saying things like, “What the hell is this? Chick food?” and “You can take the girl out of the honky-tonk, but you can’t take the honky-tonk out of the girl,” you know you’re not witnessing Academy Award-winning material. However, what you are watching is an easygoing, entertaining movie where it’s nice to see the actors having a good time. That’s the magic that comes from watching romantic comedies from the early 2000s. These movies are sweet, they make you feel at home, and while they aren’t always set in Alabama, they do share a common goal of leaving audiences with just a little bit more love and laughter in their lives.