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The uneasy three: Witherspoon, Dempsey and Bergen in Sweet Home Alabama.

Give It Up
By Ann Morrow

Sweet Home Alabama
Directed by Andy Tennant

Reese Witherspoon is the new Julia Roberts, which is a good thing for Sweet Home Alabama, a cloyingly phony romantic comedy conceived with more than a nod to Notting Hill. Similar to that contrived blockbuster, Sweet Home uses its setting—the Deep South and its good-hearted hicks, rather than a quaint English bookstore and its plucky hangers-on—as a kitschy theme park for the romance to play against. The incandescent Witherspoon is Melanie Carmichael, a fashion designer in the midst of her first big New York City runway show.

The show is a smash, of course, Sweet Home Alabama being at heart a Cinderella story (Tennant already commercialized Cinderella’s story in Ever After). Viewed as a fantasy, the movie is a mildly amusing vehicle for Witherspoon’s adorable wattage, with an added dollop of cream in the form of hunky Josh Lucas as her beer-guzzling ex-husband, Jake. Melanie’s predicament is that she has two Prince Charmings, only she doesn’t know it. On the night of her big success (and only a fairy godmother could arrange fashion-world raves for Melanie’s Jaclyn Smith-style clothing), Melanie’s high-society boyfriend, Andrew Hennings (Patrick Dempsey), the son of Mayor Hennings (Candice Bergen), proposes marriage. In the middle of Tiffany’s. With an entire staff of salespeople each proffering a counter of diamond rings for her to choose from. It’s every Material Girl’s dream come true.

Problem is, Jake won’t sign the divorce papers. Melanie hightails it to Pigeon Creek, Ala., to coerce him into compliance before the press gets wind of her real identity. Apparently, glamorous Melanie is not, as she’s been telling her boho big-city friends, the belle of an antebellum plantation: Previous to her escape to New York, she was a backwoods beauty-pageant queen who married a redneck right out of high school. Worse, her real last name rhymes with “patootie,” and her Ma and Pa (Mary Kay Place and Fred Ward) have tacky knickknacks all over their paneled living room. While hiding her shame from the Hennings, Melanie causes a sensation among her old acquaintances, who react to her city-slick style as though they’d never seen thigh-high boots before. Melanie barely disguises her disgust at these perfectly average people (the film doesn’t have the nerve to show any really trashy folk), while Tennant condescends to their every clichéd tic, such as Pa’s pride in his almost-new Laz-E-Boy.

But while mulish Jake takes his time with the papers (apparently, stubbornness equals masculinity), Melanie falls again for his good-ol’-boy virility, which he’s been applying to a new business venture. Sweet Home doesn’t waver from its fairy-tale trajectory: Melanie may give up her “adventure” as a successful career gal, but no way is she is going to end up scrubbing diapers on a washboard. What saves the film from its rising tide of insulting swill is the sharp writing: Aside from several witty rejoinders, there are enough throwaway jokes to show that writer C. Jay Cox had more on his mind than just cutesy caricatures. Bergen gets to take a poke at Murphy Brown, and a high-school friend asks Melanie if she knows Jaclyn Smith. But with Tennant waving his Hollywood wand with a heavy hand, even the cleverest one-liners go down like a second helping of stale corn pone.

Off the Rack

The Tuxedo
Directed by Kevin Donovan

Whether charismatically bal-letic, ebulliently comic, cleverly buoyant or ballistically charming, Jackie Chan’s endlessly inventive stunts and physical business are the reasons we go to his movies. In these days of digitized artifice, Chan has always offered a refreshing, realistic alternative. We’ve even been willing to excuse silly plots and simplistic dialogue for the privilege of seeing Chan deliver his trademark set pieces of human-scaled dynamism. Until now.

The Tuxedo casts Chan as Jimmy Tong, a girl-shy taxi driver whose daredevil driving skills lead to him to be pressed into service as the chauffeur to a secret agent, Clark Devlin (Jason Isaacs). When the latter is laid up in the hospital following an assassination attempt, Tong dons his master’s specially-enhanced tuxedo that gives him a mixture of superpowers. If you can believe that a suit can think and puppet its wearer into defensive and offensive actions, then this tux is tailored to your needs. At first it seems like a good fit for Chan, who savors some passable comic moments as he reacts incredulously to the gymnastics the tux manipulates him into performing. But ultimately it is a gimmick that frays.

Chan does what is expected of him as this sort of sorcerer’s apprentice, but those expectations fall well short of his most ordinary work. The real problem is that for the first time in my experience of watching Chan, it seems obvious that his work is being digitally enhanced. Such intervention, even if only sporadic, breaks the spell Chan usually creates. It is saddening and disappointing to see the master turned into an effects-assisted apprentice. Chan has finally achieved his dream of becoming a Hollywood star with big budgets, but it is at the terrible price of the very uniqueness that originally made him an international star.

As for the unassisted stunts, there is nothing here that ups Chan’s ante. He seems to have covered this territory before, and even if he hasn’t, we feel as if we’ve already seen it.

The newest American to be paired with Chan in the tired odd couple formula is Jennifer Love Hewitt, but while she is his prettiest American sidekick to date (the obnoxious Chris Tucker tried to upstage him in the Rush Hour films, while Owen Wilson offered better support in Shanghai Noon), she is no match for Michelle Yeoh (Supercop), who remains the only costar to have offered a legitimate match to his particular talents. Hewitt plays a high-kicking operative who is obviously not the real thing; at least she doesn’t steal screen time from Chan.

It would take another Chan—Charlie—to figure out why anyone thought this synthetic, threadbare material would amuse.

—Ralph Hammann

Is This Just Fantasy?

Sex and Lucia
Directed by Julio Medem

Some movies, like Nine Queens, succeed at being the cinematic equivalent of a Chinese box, sort of a puzzle within a puzzle that is unveiled slowly, teasingly, to finally convey the ultimate surprise. Sex and Lucia is not one of these movies, although it’s clear that director Julio Medem really wanted it to be.

The movie’s thin plot centers around waitress Lucia (Paz Vega), who, hearing that her lover, blocked novelist Lorenzo (Tristan Ulloa), has been struck by a car, hightails it to the magical island where Lorenzo once trysted with Elena (Najwa Nimri). Unbeknownst to Lorenzo, Elena bore his child, Luna. Unbeknownst to Lucia, her island landlady is Elena. Unbeknownst to Elena, Lorenzo was fooling around with Luna’s babysitter the night the little girl was attacked by a dog. The coincidences go on and on, but none of them does much to bring cohesion to the story, which flirts with the question: Where does fantasy end and reality begin? Is what we’re watching actually happening, or is it the product of Lorenzo’s imagination? And do we really care?

Medem has a very weak grasp of how to make these ideas work. Let’s just say he’s no Borges. When in doubt, he parades nude actors across the screen, and here again, there are times when the viewer isn’t sure if the sex he’s watching is going on for real or if it’s just something Lucia is reading off Lorenzo’s laptop. The sensuality that Medem and company try hard to exude is largely stylistic, a matter of soft blue lighting and supple skin shots. Mostly, however, Lucia, Elena and babysitter Belen represent various icons from typical male fantasies—the wild party girl, the ethereal goddess, the naughty teen—whereas Lorenzo, both as a character and a sexual being, is rather vague, a fact which no amount of erection shots can balance out. Like so many other imports that tout themselves as original, Sex and Lucia is really a vehicle to titillate American art-house audiences with a Euro version of Porky’s.

—Laura Leon

Jealous Guy

My Wife Is an Actress
Directed by Yvan Attal

My Wife Is an Actress begins with a stunning black-and-white photo montage of legendary screen actresses—Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Marlene Dietrich—while Ella Fitzgerald wails on the soundtrack. It’s all downhill from there in this dismal French comedy about a movie star, Charlotte (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her insanely jealous husband Yvan (Yvan Attal).

Yvan is bugged by every aspect of his wife’s profession: make-believe “playing,” autograph-seeking fans, intimate on-screen love scenes with suave actors, and separations caused by long weeks of filming in foreign locales. He’s tortured by strangers who insinuate that she must be sleeping with her co-stars. The latter irritant comes to the fore when Charlotte goes to London to shoot an Airport-style drama with John (Terence Stamp), a distinguished, older English movie star.

Writer-director-star Attal attempts to mine much humor from the ensuing separation anxiety; whenever Yvan suffers pangs of jealousy, “London Calling” blares on the soundtrack and the character hops the next Eurostar train from Paris to London. (The Eurostar is featured so prominently, one wonders if this is a large-scale example of product placement.) It’s not very funny, however. The problem is that Attal refuses to have Yvan seem like a fool, especially when he’s acting exactly like a fool. The audience is always supposed to be sympathetic with this unsympathetic jerk.

Gainsbourg is sufficient in the little she is asked to do, but the filmmaker’s real crime is the underuse and misuse of Terence Stamp. We are never sure if his character is supposed to be sincere, pretentious, or something in-between; the result leaves the actor hanging and the audience confused. This really unbalances the film, as Stamp has more presence and style than Gainsbourg and Attal combined.

There is a subplot involving Yvan’s bickering, pregnant sister and her husband. It is more amusing than the bits involving the leads. This provides the context for a number of Jew-gentile jokes, and the set-up for the story’s dreary payoff.

This was the longest 95 minutes I’ve spent at the movies all year. One can only hope that the real-life marriage between Gainsbourg and Attal is less tedious than the one they embody in this film.

—Shawn Stone

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