Witherspoon can't save this one

Hot New York fashion designer Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon), the main character in 'Sweet Home Alabama,' grew up in the Deep South.

We know this from the dream-flashback she has at the beginning of the film, a none-too-subtle (and vaguely creepy) scene featuring two children with syrupy, corn-pone accents. They share their first kiss before getting struck by lightning.

We also know she's from the South because, when she wakes up, her sophisticated co-workers give her a hard time about her accent.

And Ñ just in case we haven't figured it out yet Ñ we know she's from the South because, as she's dressing runway models for the debut of her latest designs, Melanie's fashion mentor tells her, 'Seven years ago you were right off the plantation, but now you have your own show!'

See, she's from the South. Get it? The South.

'Sweet Home Alabama' delivers everything that we've unfortunately come to expect from mainstream Hollywood comedies. The plot is nothing but boilerplate clichŽs from start to finish, and the script assumes that not only would subtlety be lost on the target audience, but that it's also too stupid to realize that they've already seen this exact same movie a hundred times before.

Melanie has fallen for a John Kennedy Jr. type (Patrick Dempsey, who appears to be wearing a bad toupee) who's so rich he can take over Tiffany's after-hours to propose. But his mom (Candice Bergen) is the mayor of New York, and she doesn't think Melanie's good enough for her future-president son.

To marry the rich guy, though, Melanie has to divorce her childhood sweetheart, Jake (Josh Lucas), who still lives in Pigeon Creek, Ala. But Ñ surprise! Ñ Jake doesn't want to sign the papers.

Meanwhile, Melanie's future mother-in-law is snooping into her past, and Melanie has to reconcile her New York persona with the hick-town girl she tried to leave behind.

The script offers more than a few genuine laughs (such as when the town sheriff tells Melanie and Jake, 'I don't have a single childhood memory that doesn't have you two in it Ñ and that includes the night I lit my ass on fire'). But the script is so obvious and predictable that you can map each plot point about 10 minutes before it occurs.

Witherspoon's a charming actress who has shown a genuine gift for comedy in better films such as 'Election' and 'Legally Blonde,' and she really can't be faulted for making this film. Like Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts before her, she sees the value in churning out crowd-pleasing, unexceptional fluff movies that will establish her as a leading actress. It is, after all, a business.

But those of us deciding where to spend our precious movie dollars should wait for Witherspoon to make another good movie Ñ not warmed-over, unimaginative fare like 'Sweet Home Alabama.'

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