LOS ANGELES, Sept. 26 (UPI) -- If they gave out a Most Valuable Player award in the movie industry like they do in baseball, Reese Witherspoon might have won for her delightful performance in "Legally Blonde," a cheap comedy ($18 million budget) that she carried on her petite shoulders all the way to $95 million in domestic box office.
She has signed to do the sequel for $15 million, a stratospheric sum for any actress who is not Julia Roberts.
The 26-year-old Witherspoon is likely to fully earn the $5 million she's getting for her new romantic comedy "Sweet Home Alabama." The screening was packed with groups of young women, who evidently see Witherspoon as the ideal friend: lively, likable and good-enough looking.
One woman commented on Witherspoon's appeal. "Women don't want ugly friends, but it's hard to have beautiful friends. If Reese and I went out, guys would talk to us, but they wouldn't hit just on her, or worse, hit on me as a means of getting to her. On the other hand, Catherine Zeta-Jones is so classically beautiful that she's threatening. That's why she often plays unsympathetic characters and hasn't made it really big."
The romantic triangle movie is now a standardized product, and "Sweet Home Alabama" follows most of the rules. Still, after seeing two films last week -- "The Four Feathers" and the celebrated Japanese anime "Spirited Away" -- that were so ineptly plotted that I feared the projectionists might have shown the reels out of order, the script-doctored professionalism of "Sweet Home Alabama" was satisfying.
Witherspoon plays a borderline anorexic-looking New York fashion designer who is dating the most eligible bachelor in America, Cabinet Secretary Andrew Hennings. (He's a cross between two New York political scions, the ambitious Andrew Cuomo and the gracious John F. Kennedy Jr.) Andrew's mother is New York's patrician Democratic mayor. Candice Bergen is acidly hilarious as she plots her son's route to the White House, a path which definitely does not include his marrying a slip of a girl from Alabama -- a state with too few electoral votes and too many Republicans for her taste.
Conventionally, a movie heroine initially thinks she should marry the rich WASP jerk, but then falls for the macho yet sensitive guy from the scruffy side of the tracks. In "Legally Blonde," for instance, Witherspoon gets dumped by her wealthy boyfriend, who says she'd be a drag on his senatorial ambitions: "I need a Jackie, not a Marilyn."
This new movie, however, offers women the more pleasant fantasy of being wanted by two intriguing men.
Andrew is played by Patrick Dempsey (star of the mini-series "JFK: Reckless Youth") as a genuine prince of a fellow. Because upper-class manners are automatically disparaged in movies, it's refreshing to see a positive portrayal of a true gentleman. I won't give away how he asks her to marry him, but let's just say I'm glad I proposed to my wife long before this scene establishing a new, unmatchable standard of romantic perfection.
Witherspoon heads down South to tell her parents. Her real mission, though, is to get her ornery redneck husband, whom she abandoned seven years before and has been keeping a secret ever since, to finally sign their divorce papers.
She'd gotten pregnant the night he threw the winning Hail Mary pass in the high school football championship. (What happened to the baby? Let's just say that heroines in movies never have abortions. Three decades after Roe vs. Wade, the movie-going public considers abortion too depressing to think about.)
The real find is Arkansas actor Josh Lucas as her husband. Seen straight on, his eyes blaze like Paul Newman's in "Cool Hand Luke," but he talks with the crotchety, off-kilter, but deeply masculine rhythms of comedian Norm Macdonald imitating Bob Dole on an old "Saturday Night Live" show.
He won't sign right away, either out of revenge or hope. So, Witherspoon hangs around her hometown, conniving to get him to set her free. Meanwhile, she reacquires her accent, her former reputation as the town hellraiser, and her good old boy friends. She even seems to put on enough weight to look healthy.
Which man will she choose? Anybody who has seen comedies going back to "The Philadelphia Story" and "His Girl Friday" knows what audiences want from separated couples.
If you aren't interested in wallowing in the predictable romance, you can probably stay awake by looking for some surprising details, such as the character who manufactures "petrified lightning" -- wild glass shapes formed when lighting strikes a sandy beach.
Even more unusual is that the script doesn't make the white Southern characters grovel over Jim Crow. In fact, the villainess is a liberal Northern Democrat and her sin is being intolerant of Confederate Flag-waving Republicans.
Now, that's something you don't see every day at the megaplex!
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