Reese Witherspoon’s Old-Fashioned Dazzle

Andy Tennant’s Sweet Home Alabama , from a screenplay by C. Jay Cox, based on a story by Douglas J. Eboch, would be an unendurable viewing experience for this ultra-provincial New Yorker if 26-year-old Reese Witherspoon were not on hand to inject her pure fantasy character, Melanie Carmichael, with a massive infusion of old-fashioned Hollywood magic. Just think of it: Our Melanie has invaded Manhattan from one of George Bush’s red states nestled somewhere between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. She has quickly become one of the city’s premier clothes designers, though she seems to wear more stylish dresses than any of her models and looks prettier than all of them put together. In addition, she is soon to be married to the most eligible bachelor in New York, Andrew (Patrick Dempsey), Presidential hopeful and the wealthy son of the city’s first woman mayor, Katherine Hennings (Candice Bergen), who’s been afflicted by Mr. Tennant and Mr. Cox with an unalloyed bitchiness.

Andrew takes over Tiffany’s for a day so he can propose to Melanie in a setting that Audrey Hepburn lyrically legitimized for New York romance in Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). The life of luxury that beckons to Melanie seems too seductive for grown-up Manhattanites to pass over in favor of the old Hollywood crapola about love taking precedence over money. For one thing, Andrew is surprisingly affable and virile for someone who will eventually be thrown over for a country bumpkin. In the old days, prospective suitors who were destined to be losers in love ranged from the perfectly acceptable Ralph Bellamy, who had the misfortune to be victimized by the buoyant, brutally well-timed put-downs of Cary Grant in Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937) and Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), to the fey, closet-gay alternatives represented by Billy De Wolfe, Grady Sutton and Alan Mowbray. Most often, the losers were completely Out of the Question.

Anyway, Melanie turns out not to be entirely free to accept Andrew’s glittering proposal-at least not immediately. It seems that she left a husband behind in Alabama, one who has managed not to sign the divorce papers for seven years. She has also fabricated for herself a more luxurious childhood back in Alabama than the one she actually had. This necessitates a tedious subplot about Mayor Kate’s underhanded investigation into Melanie’s life story, the results of which fail to diminish Andrew’s ardor. The intention is clearly to generate some suspense about Melanie’s final choice. Will the movie be refreshingly realistic and even a bit feminist, with an ending that rejects the notion that so-called true love can be used by a woman as a valid reason to reject not only great wealth, but also a professional career in which she’s invested so much of her energy and ambition? Why the hell did she leave Alabama in the first place, only to return like a cuddly puppy to her onetime lord and master? If I’m getting a little strident, it’s partly because I write for a publication that celebrates the cultural values of the metropolis over the comparative conformity of the suburbs, the exurbs and the godly but godforsaken sticks.

Hence, it’s close to a miracle that I found myself enjoying Sweet Home Alabama as much as I did at a screening very late in the movie’s run. The only reason to which I can attribute the overcoming of my anti-country prejudices is spelled R-E-E-S-E W-I-T-H-E-R-S-P-O-O-N. I am charmed by the combination of luck and talent and sheer intelligence that has enabled her to slide by such earlier sensations as Alicia Silverstone and Sandra Bullock in the realm of the perverse ingenue.

Actually, I first noticed Ms. Witherspoon in Robert Mulligan’s The Man in the Moon in 1991, when she was about 15. She played a 14-year-old girl in Louisiana who develops a crush on a young man, only to lose him to her older, college-bound sister before he’s killed in a tragic accident. Ms. Witherspoon did not entirely steal the picture from Sam Waterston and Tess Harper as her understanding parents, but she did project an unforgettable adolescent intensity and pathos. Unfortunately, the dirty secret of ingenues who enchant audiences too early in their lives and careers is that time is thereafter working against them, despite all the experience they may acquire. This is to say that for every Elizabeth Taylor who blossomed early and late, there are a dozen Shirley Temples and Deanna Durbins who lose that indefinable and ineffable sparkle in their eyes, and with it the universal love of audiences. Lower-impact child actresses like Glynis Johns and Natalie Wood have it much easier in that their early experience was gained without attracting too much attention, which enabled them to sneak up on audiences as new discoveries. But that only happens with the right parts, and Ms. Witherspoon has not been unusually blessed with star-making roles since her initial splash in The Man in the Moon . Indeed, until Alexander Payne’s Election in 1999 put her on the map again, she had gone the better part of a decade without a smash hit, either critically or commercially. Robert Benton’s Twilight (1998) and Gary Ross’ Pleasantville (1998) were both creditable entertainments, but neither did all that much for Ms. Witherspoon’s screen persona. In Roger Kumble’s Cruel Intentions (1999), a callow Americanization of Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th-century epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses , Ms. Witherspoon was boringly miscast as a gullible virgin in an unsavory game of sexual intrigue. As for the rest, it was a mish-mash of failed melodramas, voice-over work in animated cartoons and the occasional television appearance.

Then, suddenly, star lightning struck in the most unlikely place, a silly babe-in-brainville farce entitled Legally Blonde (2001). The critics snickered at the spectacle of a blond bombshell taking over a law school almost as much as they had at Calista Flockhart’s legal antics in the unjustly ridiculed Ally McBeal. But Legally Blonde ‘s audience didn’t care. They flocked to what was in effect a one-woman show, and a new star was born. The proof? A sequel, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde , is scheduled to open in 2003. Meanwhile, Sweet Home Alabama is scaling new box-office heights despite very mixed reviews, mostly of the loved-her-hated-it variety, and despite two relatively obscure leading men (Mr. Dempsey and Josh Lucas) and the overdecorated rusticity of its Alabama hellhole, cutely named Pigeon Creek-I kid you not.

When you think about it, it makes a certain amount of cynical sense that the movie avoids lowering the boom on the discarded Andrew by “exposing” him as mean, selfish or just plain pompous and ridiculous. After all, Melanie, by the modern-heroine definition, has to be too smart to be taken in by a jerk or a heel, no matter how rich he is. The important thing is that Ms. Witherspoon, born in Tennessee, has enough of the Old South in her to be charming in her free and easy ways. With the twinkle in her eye as luminous as ever, she can keep the audience from worrying about what comes after the final fade-out. She’s a star, and stars don’t have to face the consequences of their insanely romantic decisions. When their vehicle has reached its destination, stars simply soar to the heavens to prepare for their next visitation with us mere mortals.

Lusty French Storytelling

Philippe de Broca’s On Guard! ( Le Bossu ), from a screenplay by Mr. de Broca, Jerome Tonnere and Jean Cosmos, adapted from the roman-feuilleton by Paul Féval, has arrived at the Paris Theater in New York five years after it opened in Paris. The French title refers to the hunchbacks in the story, particularly the faux bossu who, as the hero in disguise, brings this Alexandre Dumas–like tale of treachery, greed, murder, revenge and retribution to its swashbuckling happy ending.

If one comes to On Guard! relatively cold, as I did, with no previous knowledge of the prolific Féval and his 72 novels, 68 stories and 18 plays, nor familiarity with the five previous French film adaptations of Le Bossu, and only the dimmest awareness of the Regency period in France between the death of Louis XIV on Sept. 1, 1715, and the coming of age of his great-grandson Louis XV in 1723, one must simply settle back and enjoy the film for its unexpected wit and economy of expression. The film’s frenetic action takes place across beautifully rendered landscapes, and the ever-lunging ambitiousness and ingenuity in its wordplay justifies the fencing term employed for the film’s release in America.

What I am familiar with are the contours of 69-year-old Mr. de Broca’s career, from his earliest, whimsically hedonistic comedies with Jean-Pierre Cassel and his later, unexportable adventure pictures with Jean-Paul Belmondo, to his recent obsession with historical costume pictures. He began as an acolyte of the Nouvelle Vague , but was quickly discounted by the “serious” French critics for his alleged frivolity. I am in no position to evaluate their verdict on his 43-year-career, since I’ve seen such a small percentage of his work. All I do know is that On Guard! turned out to be infinitely more engaging than I had anticipated-perhaps because such erstwhile terms of derision as the “Tradition of Quality” and a “well-made film” are beginning to arouse nostalgic feelings for old movies, French as well as American, that did not pride themselves on being so damned “personal” and “independent,” but were satisfied with just being entertaining for a general audience.

Preferring to let you discover the almost-forgotten pleasures of lusty storytelling for yourselves, I will not go into the intricate plot involving lockets, tell-tale scars, bloodlines, and all the other paraphernalia of 18th-century romantic fiction. I should note, however, that the film is marvelously acted by Daniel Auteuil as the hero, Lagardère; Fabrice Luchini as the rousingly reptilian villain, Gonzague, who schemes to steal an inheritance with as much murderous ruthlessness as Shakespeare’s Richard III employs to steal a throne; Vincent Perez as the charismatic Duke of Nevers, who learns too late that he has nurtured a viper in the bosom of his family; and Marie Gillain as the lost princess who is found and reclaimed so she can escape from Gonzague’s clutches and fall into the arms of Lagardère. Philippe Noiret rounds out the cast, literally and figuratively, as the unassumingly pragmatic Regent, Philippe II of Orléans, who gave to France banking, speculative capitalism and the Louisiana bubble, all of which, amazingly enough, speak to our own time.

Grim Cross-Class Sex

Peter Mattei’s Love in the Time of Money demonstrates once more that the prospect of promiscuous sex on the screen is more often a trap than an opportunity. Without wit or humor, a film about sex runs the risk of embarrassing the audience even further than it has already done by having lured them to succumb to a lecherous come-on. Mr. Mattei’s debut film was ostensibly adapted and updated from Reigen , Arthur Schnitzler’s fin-de-

siècle sexual roundelay, though most revivals of Reigen in the past half-

century have probably been inspired less by Reigen itself than by Max Ophüls’ imaginatively stylized La Ronde (1950), with an all-star French cast. It was a huge hit everywhere-but even so, Ophüls was roundly criticized by Eric Bentley and Richard Roud for replacing Schnitzler’s bitter decline-and-fall cynicism about Viennese society in the years before World War I with a more romantic evocation of the dear, dead past.

Mr. Mattei cannot be accused of softening or sweetening Schnitzler’s acid vision of a cross-class sexuality that is linked by the incidence of syphilis. Still, Mr. Mattei has chosen not to update Schnitzler’s syphilitic scourge with today’s H.I.V. horrors.

Instead, Mr. Mattei introduces a bisexual character into the mix, along with a suicidal stockbroker, a spurned older woman and two interracial relationships-all changes from both the Schnitzler and the Ophuls. Unfortunately, a cast of competent performers from movies, television and the theater are cast adrift in various New York City locations with no unifying rhythm or visual style. Even Steve Buscemi, the eternal nonconformist, is left out to dry with badly staged scenes of seduction and acquiescence that are anything but erotic.