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'Midnight in the Garden': Savannah When It Slumbers

By Rita Kempley
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
There's some powerful mojo working in Clint Eastwood's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." But unlike the magic of the movie's cackling voodoo priestess, the spell doesn't quite have the anticipated effect, unless Eastwood intended to put the audience to sleep. Like the South, the movie is sumptuous and somnolent.

John Cusack is a zombie in the leading role of John Kelso, a Yankee journalist based on the book's author, John Berendt. With his keen wit and sharp observations, Berendt must have been considerably livelier than Cusack's Kelso, who lucks into a murder case while visiting Savannah.

Kelso is meant to be our guide into this alien universe, but he's as daft as an infatuated lover, swooning over a Savannah wrapped in mystery and hung with garlands of Spanish moss. The city is the leading character in the nonfiction novel, but here it not only steals scenes but upstages the mystery surrounding Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), a nouveau riche antiques dealer accused of killing his hotblooded young lover, Billy (Jude Law).

The shooting occurs the night of Williams's prestigious Christmas party, which draws Savannah's most prominent and colorful citizens and serves as Kelso's introduction to a sideshow of Southern Gothic wackos: Minerva (Irma P. Hall as the aforementioned voodoo queen), a retired chauffeur who faithfully walks an imaginary dog, and a crackpot inventor with a swarm of flies tethered to his head.

The Lady Chablis, a drag diva who plays herself, headlines this freak show and injects the idling 137-minute affair with much-needed energy and momentum. Her sassy patter, liberally peppered with profanity and patois, almost makes up for Cusack's zombification.

Along with assorted other changes, John Lee Hancock's screenplay provides Cusack's character with a love interest and Eastwood's daughter, Alison, with the role of a saucy belle, Mandy. She is wholly captivating, but Mandy, like so many other minor characters from the book, is hardly crucial to the central drama.

Williams, guarded, elegant and envious of Savannah's true aristocrats, ought to be at the heart of the story, but the filmmakers basically abandon him once he's imprisoned. At this point, Kelso gives up his role as observer and becomes heavily involved in the trial. He even advises Williams's attorney, Sonny (Jack Thompson), on legal strategy.

Sonny, a sly good ol' boy, needs Kelso's opinion like the Queen of England needs another handbag. He's a master of jury manipulation, possessed of more wind than Hurricane Hugo and gifted with enormous humbuggery. Thompson, an Australian icon, was similarly sterling as an attorney in "Breaker Morant."

A stylish and scenic failure, Eastwood's version of "Midnight" will surely serve the Savannah Chamber of Commerce well. But it is a surprisingly hidebound view of Southern Gothic myth from a man who thoroughly debunked the fiction of the gallant frontier in "Unforgiven" and managed to make a good movie out of the simplistic "The Bridges of Madison County." Eastwood seems overwhelmed by the rich complexity of Berendt's stellar book. Perhaps this old cowboy has gotten too far off the trail.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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