Friday October 22, 1999
"Crazy in Alabama" gives you two movies for the price of one, but it's no bargain.
One picture is about a boy, Peejoe (Lucas Black), who is 12 years old and living in rural Alabama in the summer of 1965, when the civil rights movement reaches the community, revealing racism at its ugliest. The other is about Peejoe's Aunt Lucille (Melanie Griffith), who, fed up with her terrible husband, murders him, dumps her seven children on her mother and takes off for Hollywood in a red 1964 Ford Galaxie to pursue her long-deferred dream of movie stardom.
In bringing Mark Childress' adaptation of his own novel to the screen, debuting director Antonio Banderas intercuts between the worsening situation in Alabama and Lucille's madcap adventures on the road, but the juxtaposition of grim reality and pure fantasy doesn't work. Instead of yielding a sense of absurdity over life's endless injustices, cruelties and quirks of fate, it makes the entire film seem artificial and contrived. You know that the two stories will eventually connect, and while they provide the indestructible Griffith some terrific scenes, it's not enough to make "Crazy" convincing. In her big self-justifying moment Lucille reveals a sensibility, the vocabulary even, of a woman of the '90s rather than the '60s.
You can see how Banderas, whose mentor, Pedro Almodovar, is the master of dark, outrageous comedy, would be drawn to a story that has the stuff of slapstick tragedy, but even Almodovar might have found "Crazy" daunting to transpose to the screen. In short, Banderas, whose ambition is certainly admirable, has taken on too much for a first-time director. The film might have worked--or worked better--had it stuck to the film's narrator, Peejoe, since the story unfolds from his point of view. But Banderas strays so far and so frequently from Peejoe that Lucille in effect becomes the film's principal figure, which throws the film off balance and keeps it there.
"Crazy in Alabama" needs to have been unified by a strong vision and style, and a shrewd, distinctive sense of humor. Maybe John Huston or Robert Altman might have pulled it off.
Lucille winds up wowing a Hollywood agent (Robert Wagner) and a producer (Paul Mazursky) and lands a recurring role in "Bewitched" (where she is directed by director Randal Kleiser). Meanwhile Peejoe's Uncle Dove (David Morse), a man of conscience, is coping with a local sheriff (Meat Loaf Aday), a hysterical racist, on a lethal rampage all because some black youths decide they have the right to swim in the local municipal pool. What ensues is terrifyingly credible but presented with a righteous and heavy hand while Lucille's cross-country escapades are presented as broadly as possible. (By the time we inevitably end up in a courtroom, it seems entirely appropriate that Rod Steiger do a bit of grandstanding as the colorful presiding judge.)
Even though stuck with unflattering dark hair, Griffith remains endearing and persuasive playing a woman about a decade younger than she actually is. Morse and Black and several others in a huge cast seem true to life whereas the sheriff and Uncle Dove's flashy wife (Cathy Moriarity) come across as caricatures. But you can't really fault actors in a film that lacks the very quality it needs most: an assured mastery of drastically shifting tones. "Crazy in Alabama" wants badly to use humor in the war against ignorant and evil oppressors, whether they're racists or abusive husbands and fathers, but instead misfires--badly.
Crazy in Alabama, 1999. PG-13, for some violence, thematic material, language and a scene of sensuality. A Columbia Pictures presentation of a Green Moon production in association with Meir Teper. Director Antonio Banderas. Producers Debra Hill and Linda Goldstein Knowlton. Executive producer James R. Dyer. Screenplay Mark Childress; based on his novel. Cinematographer Julio Macat. Editors Maysie Hoy and Robert C. Jones. Music Mark Snow. Costumes Graciela Mazon. Production designer Cecilia Montiel. Art director Michael Atwell. Set decorator Robert Greenfield. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. Melanie Griffith as Lucille. David Morse as Dove. Lucas Black as Peejoe. Cathy Moriarity as Earlene. Meat Loaf Aday as Sheriff John Doggett. Rod Steiger as Judge Mead.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times