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Sweet Home Alabama is a fine example of the perfect "formula"
movie for the comedy-romance genre. The keyword here is "formula."
The film makes no attempt at hiding its Cinderella storyline and
predictable outcome, but what makes this film so wonderful is its
intelligent and humanly approach to the subject and its characters.
Not only is the film enjoyable from beginning to end, it's refreshing to
see it intentionally avoid all the mistakes that most formula movies
make. No gags. No oversimplifications. No diminutive treatment of
subcultures to garner a laugh. Instead, it focuses on precisely what
makes great movies great: strong character profile and development,
intelligent script, believable motivations, strong supporting roles,
and a very honest and real portrayal of people behaving in believable
ways. Above all, the movie acknowledges serious moments by way of serious
acting. Whatever is funny is so because people are acting in ways that
appear real and authentic, not because the writers had a good one-liner
that managed to wriggle into the script.
The story revolves around Melanie Carmichael (played by Reese
Witherspoon), a successful high-end clothing designer in New York,
who is forced to go back to her home town in Alabama to finalize her
divorce to her husband from seven years ago, so that she can marry the
man of her dreams back in the big Apple. This is a classic Cinderella
story, where a woman is ashamed of her past and tries to hide it, only
to find she must go back and face her past before moving on in life. In
the process, she learns more about herself, her family and friends,
and finally appreciates her roots in life and comes to terms with the
mistakes she's made. It's a movie about self-discovery,
but in this film, all the characters reveal depths about themselves
that truly flesh out the story to unexpected dimensions. Even Candice
Bergen's role as the mayor of New York, while clearly exaggerated and
over-the-top as a political weasel, is a truly likable character (even
though she looks and acts remarkably similar to how we might envision
Martha Stewart behaving in private). For each character in each scene,
we understand motivations, we believe why people choose their actions,
and we follow along willingly and eagerly as events unfold to reveal more
and more depths to people and the skeletons they've kept in their closets.
I was completely taken off guard by how smart this film was, from the
script to the performances of even the most minor characters. This film
illustrates so well that it only takes a simple moment, a gesture, or
even a short line of dialog to breathe real life into a character giving
a film true depth: the eyebrow expression in response to a surprise,
a look of pleasure when something works in their favor, and even the
use of dialect and slang all contribute smoothly to the authenticity
of the film. Directors have no more excuses for cutting corners on
such aspects of their films, something I've been complaining about
for all of the past romantic comedies of the past year. What's more
the director, Andy Tennant, whose resume is mostly comprised of TV
movies and less-than-stellar theatrical releases, illustrates that it
doesn't require veteran filmmakers to see and appreciate this subtle,
yet ultimately important mindset.
Make no mistake, this is not going to be a classic. It's clearly a
formula film, but done so well that you feel quite satisfied at the
end. I hate to say it, but I shouldn't have to praise this movie so
much. Yet, with the constant deterioration of romantic comedies these
days, it stands head and shoulders above the rest. "Sweet Home Alabama"
should be a reminder for how formula romantic comedies should be made.
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