"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" is an outstanding lean film trapped in a fat film's body. Clint Eastwood's screen version of John Berendt's phenomenally successful nonfiction tome, about a sensational murder case in genteel, eccentric, old Savannah, Ga., vividly captures the atmosphere and memorable characters of the book.

“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” is an outstanding lean film trapped in a fat film’s body. Clint Eastwood’s screen version of John Berendt’s phenomenally successful nonfiction tome, about a sensational murder case in genteel, eccentric, old Savannah, Ga., vividly captures the atmosphere and memorable characters of the book. But the picture’s aimless, sprawling structure and exceedingly leisurely pace finally come to weigh too heavily upon its virtues, which will likely cripple it as a significant B.O. attraction.

At more than two and a half hours, the film’s egregious overlength should have been apparent for all to see. But for whatever reason — lack of discipline at the screenwriting stage, too little time before a predetermined release date or Eastwood’s general tendency to let his films run too long — the full potential of this enormously rich subject looks to have been within the filmmaker’s grasp, only to have been bobbled and dropped. So good is so much of it that the strong suspicion persists that, given a little extra time, a superior film could have been shaped from the material that is presently onscreen.

As it stands, pic is an honorable try, another example, such as “Bird,” of Eastwood reaching beyond the sort of story that is expected of him and distinguishing himself through the generosity he displays toward an assortment of unusual characters and ways of life.

In this case, the setting is as important as any of the characters. Sufficiently out of the way to have partially eluded the homogenization of urban American life, Savannah retains a measure of the flavor and manner of the Old South, just as it tolerates, and even embraces, eccentricity. John Berendt devoted fully the first half of his splendid book, which is currently in its fourth year on the bestseller list, to his adopted town’s character and characters before even introducing the murder story, and got away with it due to his impeccable journalistic eye, elegant prose style and flair for choice detail.

Perhaps too emboldened by the book’s success with digressions and the picaresque, Eastwood and screenwriter John Lee Hancock (who wrote “A Perfect World” for the director) let their curiosity lead them in any number of directions; after a while, however, one begins to suspect that they are taking the scenic route to their destination, with little regard for how long it’s going to take to get there.

Author stand-in John Kelso (John Cusack) checks into Savannah for a brief stay to report for Town and Country on the glittering Christmas party to be given by leading society figure Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). A sophisticated middle-aged bachelor, Williams made his fortune in antiques and the restoration of the city’s fabulous old mansions, in one of which, the fabled Mercer House, he resides and entertains in opulent fashion.

This year’s party, which is beautifully rendered in the film to serve as an introduction to the civilized yet catty local upper crust, has a different aftermath than usual; in the wee hours, Williams shoots and kills his ill-mannered, violence-prone houseboy and lover, Billy Hanson (Jude Law). As he tells it, the killing was self-defense — Kelso himself witnessed Hanson threatening the host during the party — but Williams is nonetheless arrested and eventually charged with murder.

As Kelso switches gears from society reporter to chronicler of a crime, the less reputable portion of Savannah’s colorful social strata is revealed. First and foremost is the Lady Chablis, a svelte black transvestite who knew Hanson and who gives Kelso the skinny on the local doings. Chablis, a drag queen nightclub performer and actual participant in the real-life drama, plays herself in the film and emerges as one of its signal attractions.

Also in close orbit are perennially broke party-giver and bon vivant Joe Odom (Paul Hipp); blond chanteuse Mandy Nichols (Alison Eastwood), whose romance with Kelso proceeds on a very slow track; and Minerva (Irma P. Hall), a voodoo priestess whose midnight cemetery conjurings epitomize the mysterious forebodings of the title.

Williams’ trial begins at the film’s halfway point, and rarely have there been screen court proceedings conducted at such a lackadaisical pace and with so many irrelevant asides. Especially through the second half, Hancock’s script evinces no gathering force, and instead of gradually narrowing the focus, director Eastwood continues to let the yarn just unravel, with diminishing returns. Many scenes don’t know when to end, the storytelling has no snap, and the film generates no suspense even as to the long-awaited outcome of the trial.

It is certainly true that the main interests of the filmmakers lie elsewhere — in presenting an ambivalent take on the nature of justice, in examining the various sources of influence and power, and in having fun highlighting a truly distinct and seductive milieu — but that doesn’t relieve them of the responsibility of telling a story in a purposeful manner. Climactic scene revealing Williams’ fate is executed in highly effective and ironic manner, but even that is followed by innocuous romantic wrap-up stuff in which the viewer has no investment.

Performances are mostly aces, beginning with Spacey’s Jim Williams, a character who slides from print to screen precisely as one has imagined him, oozing with savoir-faire, urban confidence, silken wit and a vaguely sinister charm. The always entertaining Lady Chablis is clearly a unique force of nature, although Eastwood has perhaps weighted the picture a bit too much in her direction. Vet Aussie thesp Jack Thompson, his Southern accent fitting in perfectly with everyone else’s, registers strongly as Williams’ powerful attorney, as does Hall as the woman who delves deeply into life’s mysteries.

Cusack does OK with the always difficult Nick Carrowaytype role of the semi-involved observer of people more fascinating than he, although one imagines that a sharp Manhattan-based journalist would react with less gaped-mouth surprise at what he finds in Savannah, and wouldn’t be so thoroughly fooled by the Lady Chablis’ sexual complexity or depth. Law has little to do as Williams’ temperamental hustler, a role much reduced from the book.

Visually and aurally, the film is a delight, thanks on the one hand to Henry Bumstead’s sumptuous production design, the elegant costumes, Jack N. Green’s lively lensing and Savannah itself, and on the other to Lennie Niehaus’ smooth score and the songs of the late Johnny Mercer, who lived in Mercer House and whose great-grandfather built it.

End credits incorrectly refer to Berendt’s book as a novel.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Production

A Warner Bros. release of a Malpaso production in association with Silver Pictures. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Arnold Stiefel. Executive producer, Anita Zuckerman. Co-producer, Tom Rooker. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay, John Lee Hancock, based on the book by John Berendt.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Jack N. Green; editor, Joel Cox; music, Lennie Niehaus; production design, Henry Bumstead; art direction, Jack G. Taylor Jr., James J. Murakami (Savannah); set decoration, Richard Goddard (L.A.), John Anderson (Savannah); sound (Dolby/SDDS/DTS), Willie Burton; associate producer, Michael Maurer; assistant director, Robert Lorenz; casting, Phyllis Huffman. Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Nov. 14, 1997. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 155 MIN.

With

Jim Williams - Kevin Spacey John Kelso - John Cusack Sonny Seiler - Jack Thompson The Lady Chablis - Herself Mandy Nichols - Alison Eastwood Minerva - Irma P. Hall Joe Odom - Paul Hipp Billy Hanson - Jude Law Serena Dawes - Dorothy Loudon Margaret Williams - Anne Haney Betty Harty - Kim Hunter Luther Driggers - Geoffrey Lewis

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