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Too Much of a 'Good and Evil' Thing

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 1997

  Movie Critic

Clint Eastwood
John Cusack;
Kevin Spacey;
Jude Law;
Alison Eastwood;
Irma P. Hall
Running Time:
2 hours, 34 minutes
For profanity and brief violence
When Clint Eastwood performs, everything else fades into the background. He's a commanding presence, whether he's detective Dirty Harry, outlaw Josey Wales or photographer Robert Kincaid. So it's understandable that, as a director, he would provide his actors with the same protective freedom he has enjoyed for decades.

In "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," director Eastwood's adaptation of the John Berendt fact-based novel, he lets his actors loose. As if in a long-winded jazz session (the kind of musical experience that Eastwood loves, incidentally), performers Kevin Spacy, John Cusack, Jack Thompson and a scene stealer called the Lady Chablis, honk, blow and wail to their heart's content.

This funky fusion of southern gentility and mojo melodrama, a very reworked adaptation of the book, is always entertaining. But someone seems to have thrown away the metronome into the Spanish moss outside. "Midnight," which finally draws to a halt after two and a half hours, has a lot of acting, a bit of soul and no rhythm.

Cusack is John Kelso, a freelance writer from New York who's sent to Savannah, Ga., for a puffy piece for Town and Country magazine about an annual Christmas party thrown by nouveau riche antiques dealer Jim Williams (Spacey). Kelso starts to see -- literally -- the lie of the land. Williams, a charming, flirtatious gentleman, is clearly a homosexual who keeps his "secret" under a teeny-tiny figleaf. As long as this goes unmentioned (outside of gossip circles, that is), the locals don't mind, and they tread on each other's hems to be invited to Williams's stately mansion.

When Billy Hanson (Jude Law), Williams's obnoxious hustler-lover, is found in a pool of blood, Williams claims he shot the young man in self defense. Despite Williams's story, a grand jury decides to indict him. What started out as a routine assignment for Kelso becomes a passionately involving mystery. Fascinated withWilliams, this eccentric town and this nutty murder, he decides to write a book.

The question of Williams's guilt hangs over the movie. It seems that he did kill Hanson in self defense. But why does he seem so relaxed about all this? And why, Kelso wonders, doesWilliams's lawyer (Thompson) fail to aggressively seek clear evidence that would exonerate his client? But his objectivity becomes a rapidly dwindling asset, especially when he befriends a special lady called Chablis (the real-life Lady Chablis, who plays "herself" in the movie), and when Williams takes Kelso to the local cemetery (the garden of the title), where a voodoo priestess called Minerva (Irma P. Hall) holds court.

"To understand the living," she tells the open-mouthed Kelso, "you got to commune with the dead."

When the movie does get to the trial, it feels as though we've moved from one film to another. (In Berendt's true-life account, there were four trials.) But throughout the drama, the movie lays down some goofy local color. "Midnight" marks another standout performance for Spacey. He is its most beguiling presence, and its biggest draw. Without him, there is no movie. Lady Chablis grandstands like there's no tomorrow with butt-wiggling charm. And as Williams's lawyer, Australian actor Thompson proves to be one convincing son of the South. But like a Savannah party, this movie goes a little too far into the morning hours. You're thinking about a graceful exit long before Eastwood even thinks to send you home.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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