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It turns out that Reese Witherspoon knew exactly what she was doing when she signed up to play the not-so-dumb Beverly Hills bimbo in last year’s Legally Blonde. A comedy that, according to its well-worn blueprints, promised to be scrappy, sweet, and uplifting, the film cried out for a lead actress of slightly less credibility and slightly more hunger. But Witherspoon understood that the difference between a dumb actress playing a dummy and a crackerjack charmer playing an underestimated babe is the difference between Born Yesterday 1993 and Born Yesterday 1950, and a woman with Judy Holliday’s balls doesn’t need to settle for Melanie Griffith’s collagen. Witherspoon whipped her sow’s ear of a movie into a pink silk garment bag and stuck her redoubtable chin out for a $15 million fee on the follow-up. Then she turned around and made her real breakthrough romantic comedy, the one Legally Blonde, for all its flukey success, shouldn’t have been.

Before, Witherspoon shone brightly in a rather dim firmament, but Sweet Home Alabama gleams all over. The film gets its proportions just right, in details of scenery and dialogue and issues of motivation and intent alike, which is no mean feat in any Hollywood factory product—and downright seditious in one about the recalibration of big-city values. With a lively script from C. Jay Cox, efficient Andy Tennant in the director’s chair, a pitch-perfect cast to play off of, and some sponge-wielding genius behind the scenes polishing her odd beauty into a poreless supernova glow, Witherspoon plays Melanie Carmichael, nee Smooter—well, still Smooter, if you must know—a fashion designer on the verge of becoming the toast of New York.

Cue the Andre Leon Talley-ish gay black mentor, the slack-lipped exotic-model pal, the phonily effusive fashion crowd, and—oh, yeah, the boyfriend. Who knew the suppressed rage Patrick Dempsey must have harbored after watching Tom Cruise and Rob Lowe vault off the same ’80s-sex-comedy springboard into the stratosphere while he landed with a plop would pay off so handsomely? Dempsey brings depth to the paper-doll character of Andrew, a sort of third-class JFK Jr. with Mafia-don hair and a ferocious political harpy for a mother (Candice Bergen as the mayor of New York).

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In one of those absurdly over-the-top romantic gestures movies can’t get enough of, Andrew whisks Melanie off to Tiffany and grandly tells her to “pick one.” Refreshingly, she’s just as alien to this kind of showboating as we are, ruining Andrew’s big moment by flustering amid the blue boxes and delaying the overtime staff’s chance to clap their dollar signs together. But she picks a rock eventually, despite the facts that (1) Andrew’s proposal is probably an act of revenge against his mother and (2) she’s a little bit married.

But we knew that, because the ads, as ads inexplicably will nowadays, give everything away. There’s nothing unexpected at stake for Melanie as she dashes home to Pigeon Creek, Ala., to extricate herself from a marriage to her childhood best friend and first love. She’s going to be torn between the temptations of glitter and comfort, fame and family, caviar and catfish, but the script will tailor-make a perfect compromise—and throw in eternal happiness for all her pals, as well. The film’s only job is to make this journey toward inevitability as lively and engaging as possible even while almost nothing—from the sneaky big-city spies digging up dirt about Melanie’s past to the cypress knees showing in Pigeon Creek’s windows—comes as a surprise.

What does is the complexity of the film’s characters and the utter ease with which the actors inhabit their parts. The script doesn’t hand us a crucible event that busted up Melanie’s union with hometown boy Jake (Josh Lucas). Indeed, Lucas, with his bright blue eyes and expression of fond exasperation, is eminently stay-withable. But we can see that his and Melanie’s little selfishnesses and insecurities mesh, and that they bring out not exactly the best in each other—they’re an argument not against a bad marriage, but against a premature one. Melanie, cool and crafty in her New York guise, is revved up by Jake’s presence; he brings out her bulldog sass and she gooses him out of his flannel-shirt complacency.

Even the silky Andrew is more than the sum of his suits and pompadour. When Melanie throws him over, he affects a wondering stare: “So this is what it feels like,” says the boy who gets everything he wants, evincing an intellectual detachment from his emotions so different from the attitudes of fully engaged folks around him. And small roles are gorgeously cast and executed, particularly Jen Apgar as a date Jake uses to get up Melanie’s nose, as crisp and fresh as her apple-green blouse, and Ethan Embry as a good ol’ boy with a badly kept secret, who blossoms in all the right directions under the glare of revelation.

If the movie gets off to a rocky start, it rights itself speedily. The first third is unevenly paced, and there’s one of those terrible scenes in which the lead gets drunk and says all kinds of nasty unsayables to her hometown buddies, which is both unpleasant and out of keeping with the character. But there’s a naturalism to the rest of the movie’s contrivances, which blow a fresh breeze through its old story. Melanie’s wardrobe is even more bizarre and inappropriate in Pigeon Creek than Elle’s pink leather was at Harvard, tiny couture details such as her ruched sleeves popping out against the Wal-Mart drabness of the town’s style. (She packed for a brief stay, but Jake’s refusal to divorce her leaves her recycling outfits—a credible detail the film doesn’t linger on.) When she wears high-heeled boots to mince through a battlefield of prone Civil War re-enactors in search of her father (Fred Ward), about to surrender on behalf of the Confederacy, it’s more than the usual fish-out-of-water routine—it’s also a terrific Gone With the Wind parody that shows just how sharp this film can be.

Like its gumption-girded heroine, the New South depicted in Sweet Home Alabama is spirited and awash in charm, on the verge of change but firmly moored, and idiosyncratically appealing in nearly every easygoing detail. CP