The title of America’s Sweetheart has been vacant for a while now; the lack of popular rom-coms means that we’ve stopped looking for a sassy gal to win our hearts in airbrushed romantic comedies. That’s not to say that we don’t need them, or that the post shouldn’t be filled; less than two decades ago, Reese Witherspoon was wowing the world with such innocent fare as Andy Tennant’s Sweet Home Alabama.
With a title taken from a popular seventies song, and with politics not much more recent, Sweet Home Alabama is the story of a gal with a guy problem; Melanie (Witherspoon) is a New York fashion designer who gets a romantic wedding proposition from Andrew (Patrick Dempsey). But she’s got some unfinished business back home, and travels back to Alabama to attempt to rush through a quickie divorce with forgotten husband Jake (Josh Lucas, trying but failing to graduate from the Matthew McConaughey charm school). All Melanie wants to do is get her papers signed, but will fate, or the Southern wind, blow Jake back into her orbit?
There’s not many laughs in Sweet Home Alabama, and when they come, they’re excruciating; Melanie winces as her prospective mother in law Mayor Kate (Candice Bergen) is hoisted in the air legs upwards by a malfunctioning chair invented by her father Earl (Fred Ward); no-one said we were going for sophistication here. Neither is the romance much to shout about; Andrew and Jake may be separated by a political divide, and writer C Jay Cox has designed his script to position Republicans and Democrats as the Montagues and Capulets of their day. Neither man seems like a great catch, so watching Melanie figure it out is like watching a friend make bad choices; involving but ultimately frustrating.
Yet as our memories of cinema slip further away, I miss films like Sweet Home Alabama, fluffy, shallow but bright and easy-going, idiotic and yet hard to hate. Films based around romantic decisions, familial embarrassments, all seem like relics from a distant past. Witherspoon has built an admirable career since, and she carries Sweet Home Alabama as if she’s leading marching band, strident, proud, and a worthwhile centre for our attention. Living on the gruel of streaming, there’s nothing like this around today in the way of product; a film based around the idea that our liking for a new, fresh star is enough reason to sit through two hours of slushy silliness.