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Fish Out Of Water 

by Ed Symkus

The Lynyrd Skynyrd song of the same title does get played -- two different versions, mind you -- in this lightweight comedy, but it didn't need to be. It has nothing to do with the story, and it doesn't capture any of the film's mood.

Truth be told, the film makes so many mood changes, it's hard to pick one that describes it. It's certainly a comedy, but it happens to feature some selfish, sometimes nasty people doing terrible things to others. The central character, Melanie (Reese Witherspoon), who apparently is someone we're supposed to like, is anything but likeable. She's a successful clothing designer who's made a name for herself in New York and has a hunky boyfriend (Patrick Dempsey) who happens to be the son of the city's mayor (Candice Bergen). Furthermore, at the film's start, she is caught off guard when Hunky Boyfriend proposes to her in the middle of Tiffany's, where, in front of a dazzling display of diamond rings, he says to her, "Pick one." It's all a little too perfect.

But hey, all power to this smiling, pretty, happy, lucky woman. That is, until we find out exactly who she is: a liar who has changed her name, run off from her Southern roots and left behind a husband, Jake (Josh Lucas), then reinvented herself in order to start a new life in the big city.

In fact, soon after the proposal, she's headed back to the little town of Pigeon Creek. Officially, she's returning to see her parents (Mary Kay Place and Fred Ward) -- just two more people she left behind and forgot -- but in reality hoping to get a divorce from Jake so she can get on with things up north.

Those are most of the pieces that go into this simple plot puzzle of a film, and anyone who's seen so many other stories just like it already knows exactly how it's going to end -- although they may not be able to figure out how it's going to get there. Truth is, this is pretty flimsy stuff. For instance, since Melanie, who seems to be morally corrupt deep down, already changed her name and made up a bogus biography for herself, there's really no reason for her to go the proper route of divorce. That relationship was over and done with years before.

But someone with some Hollywood money thought this was a good idea, so the thing somehow got made. And there certainly are some good things about it. Witherspoon has become a reliable actress who not only knows how to pout for very good effect, but she also can put on one of the best widescreen smiles around. And Lucas (terrific in A Beautiful Mind as the student who plays a game of Go with Russell Crowe, then later gives him a job at the school) gets to strut much more of his stuff here. Flashing his bright blue eyes, staying boyish and full of energy and wearing a wonderful look of contentment on his face, he always controls or steals every scene he's in.

The two actors work quite well together, she taking on the nasty, bitchy part, he playing the warm and funny one. Others in the film don't fare quite as well. Mary Kay Place is reduced to uttering clich & eacute; upon clich & eacute;, with "Lord love a duck" popping out of her mouth in an embarrassing manner. And the talented Fred Ward is wasted in a part that has him depending more on an old Civil War costume than on acting ability to get his character over. Even though Candice Bergen has a good time with the part, it's hard to like anything about her because her character is so despicable.

What this all turns into is a fish-out-of-water story -- the fish being Melanie -- even though the waters of the South are where she used to swim. The other main part of it is that Jake has some sort of secret that might involve the float plane he's always tinkering with, and definitely involves the stash of money he has in his bank account.

So she has a secret, he has a secret, they have a secret between them, and before it's over, revelations about other people's secrets come pouring out. While this kind of plotting should make viewers let out a collective "Aha!," that just won't happen with the majority of moviegoers, because most of them will have known what's coming much earlier. The ending, when it finally arrives, isn't earned. Not much sense goes into the decisions made by the characters. But that doesn't matter. This is a film calculated to please the masses of middle America, and most of them don't like surprises in their entertainment.

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