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Monday
Oct212002

Sweet Home, Moonlight Mile

[Our Sunday Visitor, October 27, 2002]

Sweet Home Alabama

“Sweet Home Alabama” is one of two movies this month titled after songs from the early 1970’s. While “Moonlight Mile” is actually set around that time, “Sweet Home Alabama” plants one foot in modern-day Manhattan (where, in a Halloween touch, Candice Bergen is mayor) and another in an imaginary deep south that has barely taken up indoor plumbing. There people set explosives under anvils, serve guests “baloney cake”, and linger by moonlight in the coon dog cemetery. I’m still hoping I heard “baloney cake” wrong.

Reese Witherspoon plays Melanie Carmichael, supposedly one of New York’s hottest clothing designers, information audiences must take on faith rather than on the evidence of her wardrobe. The mayor’s son Andrew (Patrick Dempsey) asks her to marry him in a manner that wins the prize for over-the-top: he rents the ring room at Tiffany’s for a surprise proposal. As each salesclerk pulls out her little square of velvet to display rings for Melanie’s choosing, you realize that this is not something any normal American male would go along with, much less think up. It’s what girls in a dorm imagine the best-ever proposal would to be like—extremely mercenary girls, that is. Yet it’s swiftly clear that Moneybags Andrew is not a sure prize. His love for Melanie seems nearly exceeded by his desire to upset his mom.

The twist is that Melanie is already married. She left behind a hunk of a spouse in Pigeon Creek, Alabama, and has never gotten around to finalizing the divorce. As soon as Jake (Josh Lucas) swaggers onto his front porch to greet his wife, streaked with oil and sweat, we sense a subtle contrast with New York Boy. Now we’re dealing with a *real* man. The film is a hymn to the sexiness of the southern male, and a horselaugh at snotty, prissy, wealthy Yankees. (Which begs the question, Who’s behind this film? Doesn’t the answer “wealthy Yankees” seem more likely than “Alabamans in trailer parks”?)

“Sweet Home Alabama” is fairly funny, though occasionally the timing is off and some sequences are stretched too long. And though Jake drinks beer and rides with a hound dog in his truck, he has a redeemingly sensitive side as well: he makes and sells art glass pieces. Did they let a girls’ dorm *write* this movie?

Two small annoyances. One is that the women have artificial faces, even where something more natural would be the norm. Melanie and Jake were supposedly in the same class, so why is his face appealingly rumpled, while hers looks dipped in latex? Why are both their mothers’ visages pulled back in taut facelifts, as if they were Hollywood actresses instead of real Southern women? Oh yeah.

Another thing. About halfway through the movie we get to see Reese Witherspoon throw up. This seems to have become de rigueur; in nearly every recent movie, somebody throws up. Why is this? Has there been a popular clamor for more vomiting in movies? Whoever is doing the market testing on this hasn’t given me a chance to vote.

***

Moonlight Mile

For “Moonlight Mile” you must picture a sad-eyed kitten in an alley, wearing a Beatle haircut. Now you have Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays the weak center of what could have been a strong movie. The premise is promising: based on director-screenwriter Brad Silberling’s tragic personal experience, the story concerns a young man whose fiancee is killed in a diner shooting, and who works out a continuing relationship with her parents. It’s how those relationships change, as each of the three make their way through grief, that could have made a very sober but instructive movie.

Instead there’s a misguided attempt to saddle this delicate melancholy with a plot. It’s a hammy plot, with a creepy real estate tycoon trying to buy up a block of buildings, and the one plucky business that won’t sell, and a girl who won’t face the fact that her boyfriend is not coming home from Vietnam, and something half-hearted going on with the murder trial which seems forgotten every time it reappears.

Dustin Hoffman does his best with the stereotyped role of a work-obsessed dad. He’s named Benjamin, as he was in his first film “The Graduate,” and here he is cast beside a young man about the age he was then. There were moments when it seemed Gyllenhaal had copped awkward gestures off Hoffman’s much superior early performance. Hoffman also gets points for being courageously short. On a park bench Gyllenhaal hunches over like a moist uncertain cloud, while Hoffman sits beside him swinging his heels energetically, because his feet don’t reach the ground. The Short People’s Anti-Defamation League has already picked out their honoree for the annual banquet. Susan Sarandon does her best with another stereotype, the woman who is prickly and abrasive and therefore supposedly “strong and real.” When you see how she treats her friends, you wonder how she has any. Plus, a dog throws up.

The weakest point is Gyllenhaal, who usually mopes but occasionally has to appear sharp and clever, a transition that is merely confusing. He’s better when playing semi-lunatics, as in “Donnie Darko” or the very thoughtful “The Good Girl.” Seeing him play a normal sad guy reminded me another 1970’s hit, the one about “someone left the cake out in the rain.”

Jonah: Deadlines prevented me from viewing “Jonah,” the first feature-length Veggie Tales movie. However, if it is true to the Biblical story, a whale throws up.

***

Video Club

Last month we viewed “Palm Beach Story,” and with that under your belt you no doubt perceived that “Sweet Home Alabama” is a modern “screwball comedy;” it features the standard elements of wealthy, eccentric people in a mixed-up romance, with a chaotic wedding sequence (compare also “Philadelphia Story” and “It Happened One Night.”)

This month let’s continue the 1970’s musical theme by viewing “Nashville” (1975), directed by Robert Altman. (Warning: brief nudity.) This film features 24 characters who repeatedly intersect during the few days before a major political-musical event, in a plot that gradually gathers to a crisis. It’s complicated, but very rich, and you may want to view it twice.

At the time of the film, there was a deep division in American culture, usually described as being between generations, or between patriots and hippies. You could tell by looking at someone what their opinions were, because dress and grooming carried symbolic meanings. Altman wanted to explore this cultural division on the doorstep of the nation’s bicentennial. After viewing, ask: What happened to that division? Was it resolved? Did it turn into something else?

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