Dir: Andy Tennant. US. 2002. 108mins.

The $37.5m opening of Sweet Home Alabama over the weekend in North America confirms the superstar status of its lead actress, the 26-year-old Reese Witherspoon, whose soaring popularity now ranks her as one of Hollywood's most bankable opening acts. Indeed, there's no question that the success of Sweet Home Alabama, despite its rich supporting cast and warm southern US setting, is down to Witherspoon, whose effortless charm and winning comic talents recall Julia Roberts at her most appealing. But while Buena Vista's domestic releasing operation celebrates its record-breaking opening, Buena Vista International (BVI) has more of a challenge ahead. Witherspoon is thus far a distinctly all-American phenomenon, and Sweet Home Alabama, as its title suggests, possesses a distinctly parochial nature.

Witherspoon's only blockbuster to date was last year's Legally Blonde which may have grossed $96.5m in North America but was so tied to linguistic and cultural-specific sensibilities that it grossed less than half that ($44.5m) in the rest of the world. While the UK accounted for 19.7% of that international total, Germany 18.5% and Australia 11.8%, other major territories did not get the joke. Japan, for example, took just $1.65m (3.7% of the gross), Mexico took $1.6m (3.6%) and France $1.55m (3.4%).

Sweet Home Alabama will no doubt benefit from the ancillary market success of Legally Blonde, but it will most likely evoke that same uneven response, losing out in dubbing markets where the regional humour and accents will be lost. BVI kicks the film's international run off in Asia in mid-October and goes through to late December, with Japan following in spring 2003.

The film has wisely been programmed as a Christmas release in many territories, and it aims for the tone of an old-fashioned Hollywood screwball romantic comedy despite subversive elements in Witherspoon's character which you wouldn't find in any Carole Lombard or Katharine Hepburn movie.

Not unlike My Best Friend's Wedding in which Julia Roberts played a woman bent on breaking up the relationship of her best friend, Sweet Home Alabama sees Reese as a woman who has fled her (apparently rather nice) husband after a miscarriage, lied about her past to her new fiancé and friends and concealed the true nature of her upbringing, only to return to her southern town where she throws a tantrum at aforementioned husband, outs her gay ex-best friend, insults her other former friends and grumpily reunites with her parents after seven years without visiting them. That's before waiting to ditch a perfectly marvellous guy at the altar.

But whereas Wedding's director PJ Hogan played up the ironies of having a scheming and manipulative leading lady, Andy Tennant plays Sweet Home Alabama straight. He expects us to forgive Witherspoon's character Melanie Carmichael her behaviour just because she's adorable. None of it really adds up, but then again, this is the Reese Witherspoon show and the young actress transcends the material with the sparkling screen presence for which she is becoming famous.

Melanie is a hot young New York fashion designer who has just got engaged to a JFK Jr-esque bachelor Andrew (Dempsey) whose mother (Bergen) is mayor of New York. On the pretext of visiting her wealthy southern parents to deliver the good news, she returns to Alabama, but her real reason for the visit soon becomes clear. Seven years previously, she abandoned her parents (Place and Ward), her friends (Embry, Lynskey et al) and her high school sweetheart and husband Jake. (Lucas) to go to New York. Now in order to marry Andrew, she needs a reconciliation with her parents and a divorce from Jake. But, sure enough she soon discovers that 'you can take the girl out of the South, but you can't take the South out of the girl.' Whatever.

Handsome Lucas, playing Jake, is also noteworthy and he should see his star on the rise after this film. An experienced actor with key roles in The Weight Of Water, The Deep End and A Beautiful Mind behind him, Lucas is sexy and winning as the down home boy still in love with Melanie. Veterans Bergen, Place, Ward and Smart add much needed colour to the flimsy proceedings.

Prod cos: Touchstone Pictures
US dist:
Buena Vista
Int'l dist:
Exec prods:
Jon Jashini, Wink Mordaunt, Michael Fottrell
Neal H Moritz, Stokely Chaffin
C Jay Cox, based on a story by Douglas J Eboch
Andrew Dunn
Prod des:
Clay A Griffith
Troy Takaki, Tracey Wadmore-Smith
George Fenton
Main cast:
Reese Witherspoon, Josh Lucas, Patrick Dempsey, Candice Bergen, Mary Kay Place, Fred Ward, Jean Smart, Ethan Embry, Melanie Lynskey