MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL

R
Reviews

What's good for the goose doesn't necessarily accommodate the gander. Although its idiosyncratic charm, colorful characters, skein of subplots, and fascinating historical background helped propel John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil into a phenomenal success, it shouldn't surprise anybody that the book's crowded cast of characters, picaresque narrative and ambiguous authorial voice would create a daunting challenge for those who would adapt it for the screen.

Producer/director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter John Lee Hancock (Eastwood's A Perfect World), supported by a big, able cast and a production in the classic Hollywood mode, have created a film that entertains despite its languid pace, 150-minute length, and lack of viable solutions to many of its source material's endemic problems. It may not prove to be the award-winning blockbuster Warners was hoping for, but Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has enough going for it to justify its relatively modest cost and make a more than respectable showing.

The movie's split focus begins with its pair of protagonists. John Kelso (John Cusack) is a New York writer who's been sent to Savannah by a toney magazine to pen a 500-word puff piece about the elaborate, annual Christmas party hosted by wealthy antiques dealer Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). Williams is a closeted gay man whose post-prandial, fatal shooting of his employee and sometime lover Billy Hanson (Jude Law) creates a local cause cl'bre, inspiring Kelso to jettison the article and remain in Savannah to write a book about the case.

Added to the mix are Minerva (Irma P. Hall), a voodoo priestess who becomes an unofficial member of Williams' defense team; Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson), the accused's formidable, good-ole-boy lawyer; Mandy (Alison Eastwood), an attractive young woman whose seeming sole purpose in the film is to provide Kelso with heterosexual credentials; and The Lady Chablis (herself), an explosively uncensored, transvestite entertainer who was Billy's landlady.

One of the film's unanswered questions concerns the motivations of Chablis and Minerva in taking on the roles of Kelso's African-American fairy godmothers. Why are they so taken with this smirking, uptight Yankee? Prominent in the book, but lost in the movie's rush-hour traffic, is Joe Odom (Paul Hipp), the amiable, disbarred attorney who helps Kelso penetrate the labyrinth of Savannah society.

With the murder trial as its major set-piece, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil makes a yeoman effort to uncover the true personalities hidden under Kelso's and Williams' carefully constructed public images, explore the dynamics of Savannah society, and plumb the elusive truths behind the shooting. In supplying only limited answers to the above, the film's effect is that of a fictional travelogue that offers amusement, but lacks substance.

Neither Cusack's nor Spacey's characters is conceived with sufficient clarity to allow the actors a chance to shine, leaving the honors to Australian film veteran Thompson (Breaker Morant, The Sum of Us), as the deceptively folksy defense attorney Sonny Seiler, and The Lady Chablis, who, in her screen debut, reveals an intimidating comic presence that allows her to masticate the scenery and get away with it. Musical-theatre doyenne Dorothy Loudon has fun with the role of a gossipy, trigger-happy socialite; Kim Hunter is a welcome sight as one of Williams' employees; and the real Sonny Seiler is surprisingly effective as the no-nonsense judge.

The combination of its gorgeous Savannah locations, Henry Bumstead's (Vertigo, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sting, Unforgiven) production design, and Eastwood regular Jack N. Green's cinematography lends Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil unquestionable visual authority, and an a capella rendition of Savannah songsmith Johnny Mercer's 'Skylark' gives resonance to the movie's opening and closing. In between, however, the enterprise is dogged by a self-consciousness that it can't seem to shake. Nevertheless, with its built-in audience, the Eastwood imprimatur, and a well-timed holiday release, the movie has every reason to succeed.

--Bob Satuloff