Reese Witherspoon, Patrick Dempsey, and Candice Bergen in Sweet Home AlabamaSWEET HOME ALABAMA

Just how much goodwill are audiences willing to extend to Reese Witherspoon? Quite a lot, actually, if their response to Sweet Home Alabama is any indication.

In this fish-out-of-water comedy, she plays the hip, New York-based fashion designer Melanie Carmichael, whose politico boyfriend (Patrick Dempsey) has just proposed. The only thing standing between Melanie and Happily Ever After is her past, which includes the husband she abandoned in her rural Alabama hometown. Will Melanie and her estranged spouse (Josh Lucas) initially battle, then come to realize they still have Deep Feelings for one another? Will Melanie find herself embarrassed by her Alabaman friends and family yet grow to adore their quirks? Will Melanie have to choose between the two loves of her life on the day of her wedding? Will we be given a primer on how the heartlessness of The Big City, embodied here by a tightly wound Candice Bergen as the NYC mayor, doesn't hold a candle to folksy, small-town values?

The correct response to each of these questions is "duh," but predictability is one of the not-so-guilty pleasures of the Hollywood romantic comedy; the giddy thrill involved with watching two fictional characters get together when you really want them to can't be denied. In romantic comedies, we ask only that the movie in question provides a good cast, a modicum of cleverness, and that it doesn't insult us. Based on the applause that greeted Sweet Home Alabama's finale at the screening I attended, I guess one out of three ain't bad. The jokes are beyond-dopey - not a lot of cleverness here - and the film is another in Tinseltown's endless line of works showing that if you're wealthy and successful and living in a big city, you're a fraud, and unhappy to boot; it's Hollywood's veiled way of telling audiences that, poor and unfulfilled though they might be, they're much better off than the phony stars who appear in their films, and the condescension is breathtaking.

Thank God for the cast, though all of them deserve better than Sweet Home Alabama. Playing the locals, Mary Kay Place, Fred Ward, Jean Smart, and particularly Ethan Embry are charming, and Josh Lucas is the film's real find, delivering a true Star Turn after terrific supporting performances in such works as American Psycho and A Beautiful Mind. As Lucas' urban opposite, Dempsey has moments, though his decision to play the role as quasi-gay is a head-scratcher, but can there be any doubt that the movie would collapse without Miss Witherspoon? She's spectacularly assured and polished, but as with Legally Blonde, there's also a whiff of her knowing she's better than the film she's stuck in. Everyone I know loves Reese Witherspoon, but she'd better be careful in choosing her leading roles, because like Sandra Bullock before her, she could easily turn Triumphing in Subpar Material into a full-time career, and we might all lose interest.


Jackie Chan in The TuxedoTHE TUXEDO

The Tuxedo is probably Jackie Chan's least enjoyable action-comedy in a decade, and no doubt some will place the blame on the shoulders of uber-perky Jennifer Love Hewitt. (As comedic sparring partners go, she doesn't exactly exude the confidence of a Chris Tucker or an Owen Wilson.) Yes, she's an impediment to the fun, but it's the filmmakers, especially director Keith Donovan, who screw up everything in sight. The movie's setup isn't without promise. Chan plays a bumbling cabdriver who becomes chauffeur to an international spy (a suave Jason Isaacs) whose "secret weapon" is the ultimate in high-tech formalwear, a tuxedo that turns its wearer into a martial-arts master and nimble smoothie on the dance floor. After Isaacs' 007 knockoff is incapacitated, Chan dons the SuperTux and attempts to foil a madman's plot to pollute the world's water supply, aided by Hewitt as a persnickety water expert. Thrills and yuks should follow, right?

Wrong. After taking forever to initiate its premise - more than a half-hour of screen time passes before Chan even puts on the tux - all we're left with are stale variants of Chan's lightning-fast routines, which might not have looked so unimpressive if Donovan had any idea where to position his cameras. As it stands, we get one good sequence involving Chan, some bad guys, and a length of rope, and at least a dozen where the camera seems to be forever in the wrong place, leaving us confused as to what's happening and to whom. The water-pollution plot is gobbledygook, of course, but we might not have noticed if The Tuxedo's villain was worth hissing; Ritchie Coster, though, barely rates a shrug (Peter Stormare, as his henchman, is far more entertaining), and the same can be said for the film's comedy, most of which boils down to the usual watch-Chan-mangle-the-English-language "hilarity." As Chan's virtuoso martial-arts prowess inevitably diminishes, it's smart of him to focus more on the humorous side of his persona, but for him to fully succeed, he'll need to find some filmmakers, and some co-stars, as quick as he is.


Aidan Quinn and Bonnie Hunt in Stolen SummerSTOLEN SUMMER

For those who were addicted to HBO's making-of-a-movie series Project Greenlight, in which Miramax films agreed to cough up $1 million for a novice writer-director's pet project, this past week marked the first time many will get to see Greenlight's end result, Stolen Summer, which is included as part of the series' new DVD. (The film received a marginal release in Chicago, New York, and the like.) And after viewing auteur-wannabe Pete Jones' opus, the HBO series becomes even more savagely, and heartbreakingly, funny; it shows just how much determination, passion, and angst it takes to make a cloyingly schmaltzy piece of claptrap. I know, I know, Jones was a first-time filmmaker thrown into a pool of piranha, and Lord knows he's been picked on enough. Let it be said, then, that his movie, about a young Catholic boy who wants to convert his Jewish friend to Christianity, isn't completely worthless. There are some lovely shots of Chicago, Bonnie Hunt provides her particular brand of eccentric serenity, and Jones is the first filmmaker who has allowed American Pie's Eddie Kaye Thomas to give a relaxed, focused performance; he's surprisingly touching.

I don't think you can deny, though, that Stolen Summer is a wan, sickly thing, a gooey, poorly written, young-boys-bonding flick that makes Simon Birch look like Midnight Cowboy. In the interest of leaving poor Pete Jones alone at last, nothing more needs to be said, apart from this: The Project Greenlight DVD contains a feature in which you can see three-minute snippets of the nine films, and filmmakers, Stolen Summer and Jones beat out for Greenlight's Grand Prize, and this might just be hindsight talking, but every single one of them looks more interesting than what Chris Moore, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and company eventually awarded. A fluke, or is their taste as bad as Stolen Summer suggests?

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