"This place is fantastic," John Kelso, the new reporter for "Town
and Country" magazine, tells his agent. "It's like 'Gone with the
Wind' on mescaline." There in Savannah to cover a famous Christmas
party, he finds himself right in the middle of a murder investigation,
so he decides to stay and write a book about it.
Most critics have their least favorite genres. One of mine is the
movie whose appeal derives solely from a string of extremely quirky
characters. Conversely, one of my favorites is the courtroom drama.
The former genre is extremely prevalent whereas the latter has fallen
somewhat out of favor. The few courtroom dramas that are released are
all too often mediocre. Last year's best was the devastating
documentary, PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS
As America's reading public knows, MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD
AND EVIL is based on John Berendt's wildly popular book by the same
name. Since the film contains both a murder trial and a host of
eccentric characters, I went in excited but with reservations.
Although the movie, directed by Clint Eastwood, is not as good as I'd
hoped, it is a delicious satire on the South. As a native Southerner,
I found the accents true, the culture believable, and the jokes
The beauty of John Lee Hancock's script is the fine line he walks
between realism and parody. All of the characters are believable, but,
with the exception of Kelso, each has his or her own special oddities.
Although Eastwood comments in the press notes on how impressed he was
with the way Hancock boiled a complex book down to its essence, more
pruning still would have improved the final product. Paul Hipp, for
example, plays an inconsequential character named Joe Odom, whose whole
part could and should have been expunged.
As John Kelso, John Cusack gives another great performance.
Unlike his wonderful acting in GROSSE POINTE BLANK, where he provided
the humor, in MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL he spends his
time in reaction shots. Since of necessity Kelso has to hang around
with a black transvestite named Lady Chablis, Cusack has many
opportunities for displaying his shocked, wild-eyed look as Lady
Chablis hits on Kelso with abandon.
As one of the almost completely comical characters in the show,
Lady Chablis plays herself. She gets some hilarious one-liners, and
she has a gift for physical comedy that keeps the show from ever
dragging when she is on the screen. And her slinky, sequined dresses
are to die for.
In an old moneyed South, Kevin Spacey stars in the film as Jim
Williams, a nouveau riche antiques dealer. ("Yes, I am nouveau riche,
but it's the riche that counts.") He holds court in his block-long
mansion, and all the rich and famous come to call. Spacey, with the
exception of his low key middle part, owns every scene he is in. He
oozes charm and confidence from every pore. With a little black
mustache and a sleek silk vest, he sets the gold standard for attire in
a fashion conscious city. (The rich and famous at his parties have
their own stories. One pair of grande dames discuss what caliber of
pistols their husbands had used to commit suicide.)
Eastwood stages the scenes with such naturalness that you feel
right at home. As the warm southern night air drives party goers
outside, they are serenaded by that southern minstrel, the lowly
cricket. Ah, the living is easy.
Into this den of gentility, comes a tattooed street hustler named
Billy Hanson, played by Jude Law from GATTACA. Although Jim is known
to be gay, he does not speak of it in society. Billy, Jim's lover, has
no such compunctions. During Jim's famous Christmas party, Billy shows
up and threatens Jim with a broken bottle. When Billy later turns up
dead in Jim's living room, Jim is arrested for the murder. The bulk of
the movie has John doing investigative research for his book and
Along the way John runs into a string of the local curios. My
favorite is the guy who keeps house flies on short strings so they all
buzz around his head. There is a reason for this and for why he always
carries a bottle of poison with him, but I will let you find out.
Another guy walks a dog who died two decades ago. And yes, there's a
good reason for that one too.
Irma P. Hall appears in a small role as Minerva, the voodoo expert
who, one midnight, takes John and Jim to the Garden of Good and Evil.
"To understand the living, you got to commune with the dead," she
explains to John.
Movie trials need good defense attorneys. As Sonny Seiler, Jack
Thompson gives a relaxed performance as Jim's smooth-talking Southern
lawyer. A college football fan so loyal that he leaves at key points
during the trial preparation to see his beloved Georgia Bulldogs play,
he nevertheless, subtlety outfoxes the prosecution.
Finally, in a large cast Clint's daughter Alison Eastwood stands
out as an attractive woman named Mandy Nichols, who helps John in his
investigation. And more.
"Truth is in the eye of the beholder," Jim tells John. "You
believe what you choose, and I'll believe what I know." A film that
revels in ambiguity, it is a delightful piece of entertainment even if
not the major film that I expected.
MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL runs a little too long at
2:15. It is rated R for some profanity, some violence, and mature
themes. It would be fine for most teenagers.
Copyright © 1997 Steve Rhodes