Sweet Home Alabama

Sometimes adorable really is enough, especially if it comes with smarts, heart and humor. Take Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama. The movie is a comic romance that would have to beef up tout it as fluff. But watch Witherspoon dig into the role of Melanie Smooter, a steel magnolia who skips out on her white-trash roots in Alabama — that includes her husband, Jake (Josh Lucas) — and hits itig in the Big Apple by reinventing herself as fashionista Melaniearmichael.

This babe dresses herself for success. She even snags a marriage proposal — at Tiffany's, yet! — from Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), a bachelor hottie whose disapproving mom, Kate (Candice Bergen is a hoot and a half), happens to be — won't Michael Bloomberg be surprised -- the mayor of New York. Andrew doesn't know that Melanie has a husbandack in Alabama who never signed the divorce papers. Also stashed away are her cracker parents, Earl (Fred Ward) and Pearl (Mary Kay Place).

And so Melanie sneaks home, the tabloid press on her tail (the New York Post would have broken this story in five minutes), to confront her past and ultimately her own conscience. If you don't see where this is going, you've never seen a movie. Credit director Andy Tennant, working from the script by C. Jay Cox, for approaching each cliche with sense of real discovery. Tennant, whose career tends to swing fromad (Fools Rush In) to better (Ever After) to bad again (Anna and the King), has a saving grace: He is very good with actors. Lucas and Dempsey exude genuine charm. Jean Smart, as Jake's mom, and Ethan Embry, as a gay friend of Melanie's, also register deftly in roles that could have easily slid into gross caricature.

Still, there'd be no movie without Witherspoon (she's descended from John Witherspoon, who signed the Declaration of Independence, in case you're wondering about her mile-long moniker). It's no surprise the public wants to know about this Nashville-bred actress: her marriage to Cruel Intentions co-star Ryan Phillippe, her career of artistic (Election) and commercial (Legally Blonde) feats and her rep as one toughookie.

It's the tough side of Witherspoon that grounds her performances. She's unafraid to squint and screw up her pretty face until she resembles a pissed-off Pekingese. Her lack of vanity helps put the crunch in her comedy. As Melanie, she's selfish and often cruel. Let the going get soppy; she still keeps it real. She even had me in that shameless moment when Melanie visits the grave of the dog she left behind and whimpers, "You must have thought you did something wrong."

It takes a skilled actress to pull that off (don't let Madonna try it). Witherspoon has the class, the sass and the full-out talent to sustain a major career. Who else could turn the wimpy Sweet Home Alabama into a date-movie winner? She's one of that select group who is worth watching in anything. Even in this less-than-magic-kingdom, Reese rules.

Reese's Best Pieces

Legally Blonde (2001)
"I'm Elle Woods, and this is my dog Bruiser Woods." Playing a dumb-as-a-fox Harvard student, Reese turned a cheapie farce into comic gold. Her paycheck has since climbed to $15 million.

Election (1999)
Oscar stupidly snubbed the Reese peak to date as high school politicaliller Tracy Flick.

Freeway (1996)
A never-sexier Reese (and that includes Cruel Intentions in 1999) twists Little Red Riding Hood into Lolita. Rent it now.

The Man in the Moon (1991)
As a girl, 14, in love with an older boy, Reese made a big-screen debut that said "born actress."

From The Archives Issue 907: October 17, 2002