Her recent run-ins with the law may be mildly tarnishing her name at the moment, but the question of what's up with Reese Witherspoon has been on my mind for several years now -- and it has nothing to do with any offscreen activities. Rather, the decline of Witherspoon as a vital screen actress -- all while she's held onto her stardom with impressive ease -- has been far more troubling to witness than any standard-issue TMZ fodder.

As is all too often the case, Witherspoon's career took a sharp turn for the uninteresting almost immediately after winning her Oscar: a deserved one, in her case, for a bright and canny turn as June Carter Cash in James Mangold's country-music biopic "Walk the Line." Far too long a time passed while we waited for her to follow up this career boost with a committed but off-key dramatic turn in "Rendition," and an indifferent comic one in "Four Christmases."

"How Do You Know" had its high-end fans -- most of them not all that vocal about Witherspoon's lead turn -- but by the time last year's noxiously misogynistic "This Means War," a supposed romcom that didn't burden Witherspoon with a single smart one-liner,  rolled around, the frisky, risky, sour-sweet young star of "Freeway," "Election" or even "Legally Blonde" seemed another person entirely.

But Witherspoon seems to be trying to turn things around. "Mud" may not give her an awful lot to work with -- Jeff Nichols' indie drama is, in its own way, as plagued with gender issues as "This Means War" -- but it's at least indicative of the scale and class of project she should be pursuing alongside her Hollywood potboilers. Ditto Atom Egoyan's upcoming "Devil's Knot" and human-interest drama "The Good Lie" from "Monsieur Lazhar" director Philippe Falardeau. The firecracker comedy roles haven't returned just yet, but it's a start.

Witherspoon's latest project, meanwhile, finds her extending this well-meaning dramatic streak, as well as reteaming with the director who got her that Oscar: James Mangold's "Three Little Words," based on the bestselling memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter, will start rolling in September, and will be on the market at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival.

The film will star Witherspoon as a volunteer social worker who takes on the cause of an adolescent girl who has been buried within the welfare system for nine years; the volunteer must persuade the girl's biological mother to sever her parental rights to the child. The book was a hit upon its publication in 2008, though producer Cathy Konrad, seeing cinematic potential in the story, had actually optioned it four years previously. Amanda Seyfried is in talks to co-star; Lewis Colick (a WGA nominee for "October Sky") and Michael Petroni ("The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys") penned the adaptation. Red Crown Productions, the outfit most recently behind "What Maisie Knew," is driving the project.

The film will take Mangold back to the kind of female-centered, character-oriented territory he hasn't occupied since 1999's "Girl, Interrupted" -- another youth-in-crisis memoir that won an Oscar for Angelina Jolie. His touch will have to be delicate to escape the material's movie-of-the-week pitfalls, but this still represents a healthy about-face for the director after his recent big-budget exploits with "The Wolverine" and 2010's "Knight and Day." Perhaps he and Witherspoon will bring out the best in each other. What do you say?