I grew up in the South. I spent the first 23 years of my life there. I lived much of that time in a crappy one-strip Arkansas town dominated by used car lots, trucks with gun racks, quite a few mobile home parks (one of which belongs to my mother), and confederate flags in windows, where the black families actually lived on “Ni**er Hill,” up “on the other side of the tracks,” and where people used “ni**er” and “fa**ot” like prepositions and would actually chide you if you took offense. “That’s just the way we talk, son. You don’t got to get all uppity about it.” I hated that place. I loathed it in ways that I’ll never be able to properly explain. I haven’t been back in years. And when I do return, I don’t venture outside of my college town.
Invariably, however, I occasionally feel nostalgic in ways an abused partner probably feels the occasional flicker of nostalgia for an old flame. There are three things that will inevitably bring to the surface my ossified masculine Southern pride: 1) Seeing anyone wear a snap shirt ironically, which makes me want to kick them in the neck; 2) The calling of the Hogs (that’s a sports thing, for the unfamiliar); and 3) that goddamn Lynyrd Skynyrd song and those clean Southern licks, which make me want to buy an old rusty pick-up, slap on a pair of shit-kickers and Wranglers, listen to Charlie Daniels, and go motherfucking line dancing.
Sweet Home Alabama, for both obvious reasons, as well as reasons I can’t bring myself to understand, somehow reaches into that deeply buried Southern spirit of mine. I don’t know why. It’s a crap movie, and even those who will admit a certain guilty fondness for it, will concede that it’s a crap movie. There are a few nice flourishes hither and yon, but it’s hardly representative of the South. And yet, no other film can make me as homesick as Sweet Home Alabama, not even Sling Blade, which was filmed in and around my hometown.
Maybe it’s that Josh Lucas is an Arkansas boy (although, I don’t believe he lived there long). Maybe it’s that Reese Witherspoon — a New Orleans native — actually nails a few Southern mannerisms. Or maybe it’s the amiable, good nature of the characters, a brief reminder that there were good, gentle caring souls underneath a lot of racism and homophobia in the South that I grew up in. Or maybe it’s just that Witherspoon’s character reminds me of all those Southern sorority girls that I hated myself for crushing on so hard. I’m not proud of it. But a proper Southern sorority girl accent can still make lightheaded. Old habits.
In a studio manufactured sort of way, Witherspoon’s Melanie Smooter has small parallels with my own life: Leaving the South for the Northeast, cutting off contact with family, and, of course, getting engaged to the wealthy darling of a powerful political family. Andrew Hennings (Patrick Dempsey, at his Prince Charmingliest) surprises Melanie with a huge Tiffany’s inspired product placement, asking her to marry him. The catch, of course, is that Melanie is still married to her hometown Alabama boyfriend, Jake Perry (Lucas), who she walked out on seven years prior. So, in order to go through with her marriage to the JFK Jr. archetype, Melanie has to go back home for the first time in years and secure Jake’s signature in order to finalize the divorce.
And if you want to know how it ends, see every comedy of remarriage movie ever made.
It’s not a good movie, though it’s strange, in retrospect, how much better it was than the current field of Heigl/Aniston rom coms that wear their high concepts on their sleeves. The writing is overly sentimental; the mounting contrivances are ridiculous, even by rom-com standards; and some of the Southern stereotypes are both offensive and yet weirdly accurate. But there’s a little heart brimming underneath it. Ethan Embry is great as the closeted gay character; Josh Lucas has the proper oily Southern charm; and Witherspoon is a goddamn Southern daisy. The way she says, “Bye,” with that drawly Southernese makes me want to go home and drink chicken gravy out of a tea pitcher.
I’m not suggesting any of it fully redeems the film. It’s manufactured Alabama hokum. It’s oversweetened Ice Tea. It’s processed Southern cheese. But sometimes, I don’t want the fancy goddamn cheese. I want an individually-wrapped Kraft single on a fried-egg sandwich. Guilt is for Yankee assholes. And Neil Young can go screw.