Tackling a dual-tracked story with a blackly comic tone that would rep a tricky challenge even for a seasoned filmmaker, Antonio Banderas pulls off a creditable directorial debut with “Crazy in Alabama.” Novelist-screenwriter Mark Childress’ yarn combines an often wacky look at a Southern bombshell who heads for Hollywood after murdering her husband with a deadly serious account of racial strife in the South, circa 1965. Even with supportive reviews, Sony might have trouble putting this one over to the general public due to lack of significant B.O. names, difficulty of appealingly conveying pic’s nature and content, and only mild comic elements.
Given that it takes virtually the entire picture to clarify how the tale’s exceedingly divergent strands will merge, one can retrospectively understand the disjointed, uncertain feel of the opening section. To the strains of “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” Lucille (Melanie Griffith), a 40-ish madcap with a motor mouth, leaves seven kids with her mother to pursue the dream she’s always put on hold, of going to Hollywood to become a star. And, oh yes, she’s just killed her husband and is toting his severed head along with her, a fact she readily blurts out to just about everyone she meets along the road.
Curious events are seen from the p.o.v. of Lucille’s insightful 13-year-old nephew Peejoe (Lucas Black, of “Sling Blade”), who, along with his 11-year-old brother Wiley (David Speck), temporarily moves into the mortuary where Lucille’s brother Dove (David Morse) works. The low-key, wryly humorous events in the small Alabama town contrast oddly with the coarser nature of Lucille’s journey, during which she steals a bartender’s car and, when arrested, seduces a cop until she can handcuff him and make another getaway.
But unlike the bold, overly broad strokes with which Lucille’s odyssey is presented, a lighter and more attentive hand attends the significant developments in the community, where long-standing segregationist norms are about to be tested. Against a background of peaceful voting-rights protests, the first overt challenge comes when black teenager Taylor Jackson (Louis Miller) and his younger brother turn up at the whites-only public swimming pool. Chased away, Taylor returns the next day with about 10 more black boys, an act of defiance that triggers head-bashing by the local cops and Taylor’s semi-accidental death at the hands of racist Sheriff John Doggett (Meat Loaf Aday), an incident witnessed by Peejoe.
Story lines begin to connect when the fearless Peejoe informs the sheriff that he’ll tell of the man’s responsibility for Taylor’s death if he doesn’t lay off his pursuit of his aunt, who by now has gotten as far as Las Vegas, where she rakes it in at a casino. In Alabama, Taylor’s funeral becomes a major civil rights event. Peejoe’s instinctive siding with the black cause provokes the ire of many whites, but also lands him on the cover of Look magazine and leads him to meet Martin Luther King, who is photographed in the same reverential but obscured way Jesus was in “Ben-Hur.”
Because of both its potent historical charge and the perspective of a kid going through such significant character definition, the Alabama material gathers considerable interest and force. For rather longer than necessary, however, it remains unclear just how funny, charming and sympathetic Lucille is supposed to seem; the constant presence of her late hubby’s head and the abandonment of her family more often feel oddly perplexing than amusing. But it all comes together in a raucous climactic trial.
The opposition of the two dramas winds up in gratifyingly moral and philosophical territory, as relative notions of freedom — public and private — are weighed, along with the means sometimes required to attain it. Concluding legalities, helped along by an eccentric judge (Rod Steiger), provide a satisfying balance to the numerous issues raised along the way.
It’s a major plus that the pic leaves a much better impression at the end than it does in the first few reels, and it’s to Childress and Banderas’ credit that the initial tonal problems are eventually ironed out. The director has assembled some good thesps and handles them well; there are also signs — an occasional eye-opening camera setup, a vivid bit of staging — that he is alert to visual considerations. All the same, the pic could have used a bold stylistic approach, along the lines of such contempo masters of dark comedy as the Coens or Wes Anderson, to fully put it across. Impression instead is that of a potentially talented filmmaker just getting his feet wet.
Outfitted in a jet-black wig, Griffith, who pursued the property since its publication six years ago, initially seems a bit long in the tooth as a woman embarking on the apparent folly of a Hollywood quest, but the age factor ultimately adds a touch of poignancy and sense of greater victory to her journey; in the end, her Lucille is a warm, multifaceted character.
Black delivers a compellingly confident and sharp-witted teenager, and Morse is appealingly understated as a middle-aged man who comes to the same social awareness as Peejoe, only much more slowly and cautiously. Robert Wagner, Elizabeth Perkins and Paul Mazursky portray some of the more important figures Lucille meets during her Hollywood sojourn. Tech contributions are pro.