A down-home dilemma

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

It's no accident that the ubiquitous poster for "Sweet Home Alabama" features nothing but Reese Witherspoon's radiant face. She is not the movie's main attraction, she is its only attraction. And the filmmakers know this, capitalizing on her spunky charm for all they're worth.

Not that the picture is drab. Smart enough to surround Witherspoon's sparkle with colorful settings and a fast-moving story, director Andy Tennant and screenwriter C. Jay Cox have crafted a suitably slick vehicle that doesn't skimp on trendy jokes, fashionable outfits, or predictable twists of romantic fate.

Witherspoon plays Melanie, a New York fashion designer who is engaged to the mayor's son. Trouble is, she already has a husband in the sleepy Southern town where she grew up. She pays him a visit to get the divorce papers signed, sparking bittersweet reunions with friends, enemies, and parents.

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Along the way she remembers her roots, decides small-town life isn't so bad after all, and wonders if her big-city suitor is worthier than the childhood sweetheart she married years ago. It doesn't hurt that her estranged spouse has traded his redneck ways for an artistic career and a large bank account, or that his winsome smile resembles the young Paul Newman's.

He is played by Josh Lucas ("A Beautiful Mind"). Also on hand are Patrick Dempsey, as the high-toned fiancé, and Ethan Embry, as the gay friend no self-respecting romantic comedy can do without these days.

Older viewers will be pleased to see Candice Bergen as the mayor – tapping memories of "Murphy Brown" with political and journalistic jokes – as well as trusty Fred Ward and the underrated Mary Kay Place.

Still, it's Witherspoon who puts the sweetness in this Alabama home. It doesn't have a speck of authentic heart – you can bet its Hollywood creators wouldn't move to Alabama if their lives depended on it – but if you belong to the growing legion of Witherspoon worshippers, this is definitely the movie of the week.

• Rated PG-13 for vulgar language.

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