Melanie Griffith manages to make Barbra Streisand look downright camera-shy in "Crazy in Alabama," a fawning vanity vehicle of Hollywood and the South in the '60s. As directed by her husband, Antonio Banderas, Griffith's every entrance requires the rest of the cast to react as if she were Helen of Troy back from the dead.
Bowled over by her collagenated beauty and wowed by her breathy charm, a veritable male chorus of chauffeurs, highway patrolmen, Hollywood suits and pubescent boys sing her praises all movie long: "What a lady," says one. "You are sooo beautiful," observes another. "You're even prettier than your picture." "My, but you look stunning."
Well, she does look good for a poor country gal with seven snot-nosed young'uns hanging around her waist and a cheating, abusive husband draining her of self-confidence. But a barrage of bull isn't going to convince anybody that Griffith's still fresh enough for the giggly, girlish role of Aunt Lucille, a wacky glamour-puss who kills her husband, sticks his severed head in a Tupperware container and takes it along to Tinseltown to become a star.
Her adoring 12-year-old nephew, Peejoe ("Sling Blade's" compelling Lucas Black), who stays behind in the Alabama backwoods, keeps up with her escapades, which are juxtaposed with his own coming of age in the segregated South. While Lucille varooms toward California in a stolen convertible, Peejoe becomes a hero in the civil rights movement when he points the finger at a racist sheriff (singer Meat Loaf Aday) who kills a black child attempting to integrate the local swimming pool.
As the courageous Peejoe attends a somber rally for the slain youth, Lucille, ecstatic after scoring a jackpot, beds a hunky Las Vegas bellhop. When she arrives in Los Angeles and immediately lands a part on "Bewitched," Peejoe and his uncle (David Morse) are risking the sheriff's vengeance by contacting federal agents about the lawman's role in recent racial incidents.
The juxtapositions are not merely preposterous but downright tasteless. Worse yet, they unintentionally trivialize the civil rights movement by aligning it with a ding-dong belle's tenuous connection with the women's movement. It doesn't help that Super Mommy abandons her brood at her downtrodden sister's house while she's off pursuing her dream. Well, she's just so purty, everybody wants to see her succeed.
Except for the young actor who plays Peejoe, Morse as his tentative uncle and John Beasley as the grieving father, the cast might have been plucked from a little theater production of "The Fantasticks" in East Bejesus, Idaho. When Griffith's Lucille sees Peejoe's face on the cover of Look magazine--the story of the child's murder has broken--she reacts as if she just sat down on an electric eel. And Aday's racist lawman . . . let's just say we now know what Meat Loaf is made of: country-fried ham.
The piece de resistance--the red-eye gravy, as it were--is Rod Steiger's hyperventilating turn as a crusty but lovable old judge. He, too, is smitten by Lucille, who has been returned to Alabama. At this point we finally learn why these two stories have been linked, but Mark Childress, who wrote the screenplay based upon his book of the same name, would have been better off leaving this Southern Gothic between two covers.
Banderas, a Spanish actor making his directorial debut, may have done a great deal of research on the civil rights movement, but he doesn't feel the tragedy or the jubilation in his bones. Speaking of bones, at least this movie gives us a new use for Tupperware.
Crazy in Alabama (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for coarse language, violence and adult themes.
CAPTION: Melanie Griffith and Lucas Black.