Friday November 21, 1997
idnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" boasts 2 million hardback copies in print after spending three years on national bestseller lists, but unless you already knew those facts you'd never guess them from the uninvolving film that Clint Eastwood has cobbled together from bits and pieces of the original story.
It's not necessary to have read John Berendt's nonfiction book about a murder trial set amid the brandy-soaked decadence of Savannah, Ga., to feel let down by what Eastwood and screenwriter John Lee Hancock have created. Listless, disjointed and disconnected, this meandering two-hour, 32-minute exercise in futility will fascinate no one who doesn't have a blood relation among the cast or crew.
But looking at the book does provide a road map that shows just how this particular accident happened. It starts, not surprisingly, with garden-variety Hollywood hubris, because if ever a bestseller was an unlikely candidate for a satisfying motion picture, this was it.
At its core, "Midnight in the Garden" is a Southern Gothic Arabian Nights, a charming compilation of eccentric, unexpected and often pointless stories and characters to which the nominal murder-mystery plot is almost incidental. What the movie has done is flip-flop the original's components, paring down the stories and emphasizing and even adding to the book's Perry Mason elements, which is the equivalent of clear-cutting a lush forest and asking everyone to admire the few stumps that remain.
Though Eastwood can do wonders as a director, his minimalist tendencies are better suited to containing overripe material like "The Bridges of Madison County." Adding his deliberate touch to a script that has already shredded gossamer-thin material makes what should be lively and energetic flat and uninvolving.
While author Berendt lived off and on in Savannah for eight years, his film surrogate, New York journalist John Kelso (John Cusack), is flown down on assignment for Town & Country magazine to cover a celebrated Christmas party given by the mysterious Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey).
A preservationist and restorer of antebellum mansions, the self-proclaimed nouveaux riche Williams is a key figure in Savannah society. A collector of "the trappings of aristocracy," he smokes King Edward cigarillos, owns enough Faberge eggs to make a czar jealous and calls Kelso "sport" whenever possible.
On his first night in town the journalist also meets Mandy Nichols (Alison Eastwood, the director's daughter) and Joe Odom (Paul Hipp), a pair of--dare one say it--free spirits who party with enough intensity to convince Kelso that Savannah is "like 'Gone With the Wind' on mescaline."
At the big Christmas bash, Kelso witnesses an altercation between Williams and Billy Hanson ("Gattaca's" Jude Law), "a walking streak of sex" (or so the book calls him). Very much the profane and trashy street hustler, and nominally the host's part-time employee, Hanson's position as Williams' lover becomes clearer when Williams later shoots him, he claims in self-defense, and is charged with murder. Sensing a good story, Kelso decides to stick around and write a book on the situation.
Unlike Berendt's position in the original as a detached observer, Kelso here is in the thick of the story, serving as a key witness and a detective, investigating leads, finding critical evidence and sharing information with Williams' lawyer Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson) and his voodoo advisor (don't ask) Minerva (Irma P. Hall). While this sounds interesting compressed into a single sentence, dragging it out at the film's glacial pace is another story.
As what was serendipitous in "Midnight" now is plodding, so characters who were fully drawn in the book, like disgruntled inventor Luther Driggins (Geoffrey Lewis), are now reduced to shallow and eccentric cameos, brief stops on a tour bus' itinerary.
The Lady Chablis, the drag queen who plays herself in the film, presents a different kind of problem. While she is one of the book's most memorable personalities, she had no relation to the trial or anyone in it. But she's been, pardon the pun, dragged into everything here, and her weary "Birdcage" antics are given so much time she's allowed to hijack the movie without knowing quite what to do with it.
While some of "Midnight's" difficulties, like condensing the book's four trials into one, are more or less unavoidable, others are of its own making, like contriving an unnecessary romance between Kelso and Mandy that is formidably unconvincing.
Unlike Berendt, who penetrated the normally closed inner circles of Savannah, director Eastwood (who wisely chose to turn the film's soundtrack into a tribute to native son Johnny Mercer) has not been able to find a way into this material. If the book made readers feel as if they were lifelong local residents, the movie version of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" treats us like tourists, on the outside looking in.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, 1997. R, for language and brief violence. A Malpaso production in association with Silver Pictures, released by Warner Bros. Director Clint Eastwood. Producers Clint Eastwood, Arnold Stiefel. Executive producer Anita Zuckerman. Screenplay John Lee Hancock, based on the book by John Berendt. Cinematographer Jack N. Green. Editor Joel Cox. Costume supervisor Debora Hopper. Music Lennie Niehaus. Production design Henry Bumstead. Art directors Jack G. Taylor Jr., James J. Murakami. Set decorators Richard Goddard, John Anderson. Running time: 2 hours, 32 minutes. John Cusack as John Kelso. Kevin Spacey as Jim Williams. Jack Thompson as Sonny Seiler. Irma P. Hall as Minerva. Jude Law as Billy Hanson. Alison Eastwood as Mandy Nicholls. Paul Hipp as Joe Odom. The Lady Chablis as Chablis Deveau.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times