MOVIES: Wishing on a Couple of Stars

In two new films, Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal get in line to be the Next Big Thing

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You might not realize it in a media environment that's ravenous for teen celebrities, but Hollywood is a little short on young stars these days. Tom and Julia have been up there for ages; Vin Diesel and The Rock are not so much human beings as Soviet-era statuary. Yes, there are gifted, charismatic actors out there waiting to take over, but they don't always get the movies to match their talents.

Reese Witherspoon, 26, was a critics' darling (especially in Election) before she earned fame last year in Legally Blonde. Superficially, Sweet Home Alabama is a similar fish-out-of-water scenario. Blonde sent a Beverly Hills fashionista to Harvard Law School; Sweet sends Southern gal Melanie--who had fled to New York City, found success as a designer and landed the mayor's son as her fiance--back home to get a quick divorce from Jake (Josh Lucas), the boy she had loved, wed and left in rancor. But Jake is so steamed that he won't sign the papers. The whole town turns on Melanie for becoming a spoiled Yankee brat. And the mayor dispatches spies to learn her dirty white-trash secret.

The film (directed by Andy Tennant) has more problems than Melanie, and they're insoluble. Its lazy calculation telegraphs each plot turn and underlines emotions with corn-pone music. And the decision to turn Melanie into a snarky city critter, who must spend the film's second half apologizing to everyone she insulted in the first half, sabotages Witherspoon's ability to be the full star package: pretty, smart and caring.

Jake Gyllenhaal has just those qualities, plus huge brown eyes and a fretful mouth, giving him the look of a spaniel afraid he's about to be swatted. He won kind notices in October Sky and The Good Girl, and now in Moonlight Mile he heads a cast that includes Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon and Holly Hunter. What's more, he is playing a young man who, after his fiance's death by gunfire, is living with her grieving parents (Hoffman and Sarandon). Can he carry all that freight?

With no sweat. Gyllenhaal is at ease in front of the camera. The huffing falls to writer-director Brad Silberling (City of Angels), who wants his film to be a cross between The Graduate and In the Bedroom, to reopen the wounds of the Vietnam era and somehow to have it all end happily. The film is full of sharp acting and home truths, but its ambition to be different finally surrenders to its need to be loved.

Moonlight Mile's finest performance is by a virtual unknown, Ellen Pompeo, as a bereft soul who becomes Gyllenhaal's love interest. Forging a deep bond with the actor and the audience, Pompeo is lovely, funny, intense--star quality in the making. Now let's see if she and Hollywood know what to do with it. --By Richard Corliss