America remains a deeply divided nation on issues of moral values and some might argue that the fault line is, in part, geographic.
Remember the famous map of the 2000 presidential election? It divided the country into red and blue zones, depending on whether the areas had voted for Bush or Gore. The South and the heartland voted for the Republicans, and the big cities and the West Coast went for the Democrats.
Many commentators suggest this split reflects cultural differences rather than economic issues or financial status. Their assumption is that the Republican Party is more conservative on social issues while the Democrats are more permissive. This, some say, explains how the various regions voted. In other words, the part of the country you live in may also be a good indicator of what you stand for and what you believe in.
Sweet Home Alabama, directed by Andy Tenant (Ever After) and written by C.J. Cox and Douglas Eboch, is a slick romantic comedy whose premise hinges on these sorts of differences. The movie opens in Alabama. The preteen Melanie Smooter (Dakota Fanning) is telling her boyfriend, Jake Perry (Thomas Curtis), that she has things she wants to do before she gets married. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning strikes as if to underline her words.
We next see a grown-up Melanie (Reese Witherspoon) in Manhattan having achieved her childhood dreams. She's now a dress designer on the verge of great success. But she's also changed her last name to Carmichael and lost most of her Southern accent. Her roots are hidden or forgotten.
The man in her life seems to be the ultimate Prince Charming, at least from a big-city perspective. Andrew Henning (Patrick Dempsey) is the son of New York's ambitious mayor, Kate Henning (Candace Bergen). A JFK Jr.-lookalike, he has a smooth smile, perfectly coifed hair and political ambitions of his own.
All Andrew needs is an appropriate mate and, much to his mother's chagrin, he chooses Melanie. To make this Peoplemagazine fantasy complete, he pops the question in Tiffany's after hours and tells her she can pick any diamond ring in the store. Melanie rushes back to Alabama to explain her new love to her parents, Earl (Fred Ward) and Pearl (Mary Kay Place). But there's also a more serious problem. She's already married.
As a teen-ager, she got hitched to her childhood sweetheart, Jake, and never bothered to get a divorce when she left him for the big city. She's also neglected to tell anyone in her high fashion, high-society world about the husband she left behind. Back in Alabama, Melanie experiences culture shock. “People need a passport to come down here,” she quips.
Her folks are a problem. They aren't the plantation aristocracy she'd made them out to be to her New York friends. They're one step above trailer-court trash and proud of it. They live in a doublewide trailer decorated with Confederate flags and enjoy participating in Civil War re-enactments.
We also learn that the well-behaved, focused career girl our heroine became in the Big Apple bears almost no resemblance to the teen-age hellraiser she was in Pigeon Creek. Nicknamed “Felony Melanie,” she is still remembered for her outrageous exploits.
The grown-up Jake (Josh Lucas) seems to be a “good old boy” of limited ambition. He lives in a shack by a lake with his dog and likes to fly planes. Melanie begs him to sign the divorce papers. He refuses.
There are still sparks between them and, unexpectedly, she finds herself uncertain of what to do next. Both men have their qualities. Melanie must choose between redneck Jake and limousine-liberal Andrew—and the two very different lifestyles they represent.
The rest of the movie unfolds much in the style of a variation of the 1930s screwball comedy called the “remarriage comedy” (The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth, etc.). In these narratives, the protagonist is prevented from hooking up with a second spouse by the machinations of the first one so that, in the end, the original couple is reunited.
To those who believe present-day Hollywood is a die-hard bastion of permissive liberalism, some of the filmmakers' creative choices within this genre may be surprising. They favor life in rural Alabama over the sophisticated, fast-paced whirl of Manhattan's upper-east side. By extension, one could even say that the red-colored regions that voted for Bush are made to seem more appealing than the blue-colored urban areas that went Democratic.
Down-home relationships are shown to be more grounded in reality. Unlike Melanie, Jake has kept as best friends the people he grew up with. Unlike Melanie's associates in New York, the old crowd in Pigeon Creek sees having babies as a virtue.
More astonishingly, the villain of the piece is Andrew's mother, a Democratic celebrity-politician. She's depicted as exploiting poor people to get their votes while remaining a wealthy snob at heart.
Like the golden-age classics that inspired it, Sweet Home Alabama is more an affirmation of the glory of first love than an endorsement of the sacrament of marriage. Both it and its predecessors explore the ramifications of our modern culture of divorce without asking the hard questions. The point, then and now, is to keep the laughs coming.
The makers of Alabama may keep us entertained, but they sell their premise short. Rather than dig deeper into the meaning of the values differences between the two regions, they settle for the cute and the picturesque. Also, sad to say, the profanity and repeated homosexual references may make the movie rocky going for family viewing.
John Prizer is currently based in Washington, D.C.