Sweet Home Alabama

Hollywood thinks nothing of "reinventing" an old property by slapping a new title on it, changing the setting, shooting it with a different cast, then pretending it's something brand new. The message of Sweet Home Alabama, a prime example of this process, is that it's wrong for a person to do the same thing.

Reese Witherspoon follows her Legally Blonde success with a far lesser romantic comedy. She's perfectly fine in a role Carole Lombard probably played in the 1930s, but the script is weak, rambling, and oh-so-predictable. If this one helps anyone, it will be Josh Lucas, who was killed at the beginning of The Deep End and also appeared in A Beautiful Mind. With bright blue eyes (or contacts), he has the look and charm of a young Paul Newman.

Melanie (Witherspoon) left Pigeon Creek, Alabama, seven years ago and never looked back. In New York she changed her last name from Smooter to Carmichael and revised her biography. Now she's a rising young designer who accepts a romantic marriage proposal from Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), the son of Mayor Candice Bergen.

Before she can marry Andrew, Melanie has to go home to get a divorce from Jake (Lucas), the childhood playmate/soulmate she was married to before she left. He's refused to sign the papers all these years. Could that be because he still loves her, even though he calls her a "hoity-toity Yankee bitch"?

Pigeon Creek is a stereotypical Southern movie town. They've made some progress since Gone with the Wind but can hardly be confused with civilization. Of course they've got folk wisdom that puts the city slickers' book learnin' to shame, and occasionally they'll say something in their own defense like, "Just because I talk slow doesn't mean I'm stupid."

In the long midsection, we meet most of the population of Pigeon Creek as Melanie gets reacquainted with them. Most of their stories are left underdeveloped, including that of Melanie's mother (Mary Kay Place), who drove her daughter to excel and pushed her into pageants as her ticket out of town. Jean Smart has much less to do as Jake's mother.

One character who gets too much screen time is Bobby Ray (Ethan Embry), Pigeon Creek's only gay man, who is closeted until Melanie outs him. It doesn't seem to bother anyone. They probably all knew anyway. It's not the kind of town where anyone can keep a secret.

The old cliché was that the gay character would wind up alone. The new cliché is that there are two gay characters so they can discover each other at the end. In this case, the other one is Melanie's New York fashion mentor, the flamboyant Frederick (Nathan Lee Graham). There's a red herring in the form of a phony reporter, but if he's gay, he'll have to find someone in New York.

Finally it comes down to whether Melanie will marry Andrew or remain married to Jake but work harder at it this time. Anyone who can pretend to be surprised at her decision by the time it finally comes should be in the running for an Oscar.

Director Andy Tennant (Ever After, Anna and the King) brings out more drama than comedy, which is exactly what this kind of featherweight flick doesn't need. A terrific cast fails to raise it above mediocrity.