Sunday, February 10, 2008

Dames from Dixie

Sweet Home Alabama (2002)
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

“What we need,” a friend tells Evelyn Couch early in Fried Green Tomatoes, “is an assertiveness training class for Southern women – but that’s a contradiction in terms, isn’t it?”

If these two movies are anything to go by, the only contradiction is the idea that Southern women need any assertiveness training at all. There are so many movies out there about feisty Southern gals (see also: Steel Magnolias, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, or even Gone With the Wind) that they could almost form their own sub-genre. And in honour of my upcoming road trip through the Deep South, I decided to revisit a couple of old favourites.

Sweet Home Alabama, I’m willing to admit, is in many ways a deeply flawed film. Dangling plot threads abound (what is the deal with Mel’s mom, anyway?), Mel’s miraculous two-day turn-around – after seven years of pretending Alabama didn’t exist – is a bit hard to swallow even for a chick flick-lover like myself, and of course, if anyone punched out the Mayor of New York, Secret Service would probably shoot the perp on the spot. But still, I love this silly little movie. I love it so much, I watched it twice in the course of a seven-day rental. Next time I see it on the sale rack at the pharmacy, I’ll probably buy it, and add it to my collection of pure comfort food flicks.

In case you’re not already familiar, it follows the story of Melanie Carmichael (Reese Witherspoon), an up-and-coming New York fashion designer who’s just gotten engaged to the highly-eligible bachelor Andrew Jennings (Dr. McDreamy himself, Patrick Dempsey). There’s just one catch: Mel’s been hiding an awful lot from her pals in New York, including a trailer-trash background in rural Alabama and a ne’er-do-well husband named Jake (the delicious Josh Lucas). In a whirlwind trip home to demand a divorce, Mel makes stops in all the right places: the honky-tonk, the county fair, even the local Coon Dog Cemetery. Along the way, she confronts her past, her parents, and her ex-soulmate, Jake. Sparks fly, naturally, and we all know how it ends. (Note to the producers of Here On Earth: the country boy is always supposed to win!)

Yes, it’s predictable. Yes, it has plot holes big enough to lose an old beat-up pickup in. Yes, a lot of the comedy comes from tired Yankee-vs-Southerner stereotypes. And yes, the slow-motion final kiss is totally over-the-top. But Josh Lucas and Reese Witherspoon have great chemistry, and his intensity makes you really believe he’s been pining for years, while Witherspoon can make any movie look good without even trying. Plus, all flaws aside, it’s a really nice story about remembering our roots and being ourselves. I’m getting an urge for another re-watch just thinking about it…

Fried Green Tomatoes, on the other hand, is a movie that’s difficult to find a flaw in: fantastic, understated script; fully-fleshed characters, wonderfully brought to life; great, evocative music; and a level of attention paid to the set and the costumes that’s rare in movies these days – every detail is perfect, and each contributes in its way to the development of the characters and the advancement of the storyline. As I wrote in a Screening Log entry over at Not Coming To A Theater Near You, Fried Green Tomatoes is possible “the best evidence I can come up with to prove that ‘chick flick’ doesn’t have to be a slur.”

There are two interconnected stories here: one follows Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates), a modern-day housewife whose frustrations with her weight, her marriage, and her life more generally, are threatening to overwhelm her. On a visit to a nursing home she meets Linny (the fantastic Jessica Tandy), who introduces her to the characters of her youth, in a tiny town called Whistle Stop. Evelyn finds herself coming back week after week to hear more about Idgie, the rebellious daughter of the Threadgoode family, and Ruth, the proper young woman she befriends. As Idgie and Ruth confront death, poverty, racism, and domestic abuse, almost always with a large dose of humour and sass, Evelyn begins to learn how to take control of her life, too. It’s beautiful, funny, and will almost certainly make you cry. Highly recommended.

Sweet Home Alabama is not likely to go down well with the lads (although if you meet a guy who loves this movie, please give him my contact info), but is great for girls nights, solo viewing, or even a night in with Mom. Fried Green Tomatoes is technically a chick flick, but anyone who enjoys a good story, well-told and well-filmed, should appreciate it.

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