Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (15)

Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Kevin Spacey, John Cusack, Alison Eastwood, Jude Law, Lady Chablis

Clint Eastwood's latest film as director is based on a highly successful semi-fictional novel about a murder in Savannah, Georgia, and for my money has one of the best (although longest) titles around. I haven't read the book, but it concerns the murder of a trashy young man by his older and more properous friend, who also happens to be one of Savannah society's elite. The book created a furore because although written as fiction, there was a very similar real life case apprently.
Here, we meet reporter John Kelso(Cusack), who arrives in Savannah to cover suave and sophisticated Jim Williams(Spacey) society Christmas party for a glossy magazine. Cusack takes a liking to Jim, but is witness to a nasty scene between him and his 'friend' Billy(Law), who demands money and gets very aggressive when Spacey refuses. Later that night, Cusack is awoken by the sound of sirens as the young man has been murdered. Spacey claims self defence, and Cusack agrees to help out his friend. He meets up with a girl, Mandy, played by Clint's daughter Alison- completely superfluous to the plot, but merely to show Cusack as heterosexual. More entertaining is the transexual Lady Chablis, a night club entertainer and playeing herself(or himself?). Lady Chablis was involved in the actual events that inspired the story, and is a riot, providing the local colour in more ways than one. We also have a bizarre voodoo mystic lady and a squatter-cum-pianist living nest door. Eventually the film winds along its way to a courtroom confrontation, and gradually more about the events of that night unfold.
What stands out more than anything from this film, is the atmosphere of Savannah. Eastwood lovingly photographs the lush parkland, and flower laden branches of spreading trees. This vision of America is a different one from most US movies. It looks like a period film, with sprawling old houses, elaborate high class parties and a remarkably mature cast. It is certainly different to see a party where the belle is a 60-something glamour puss who carries a gun in her purse and tells anecdotes about her husband's suicide. The courtroom scenes feature no Grisham-type young lawyers, but paunchy middle aged ones, and the sexiest young things are the murdered Law and the little seen Alison Eastwood (that's discounting Cusack as he is the story teller.) It seems like a different world to Cusack too, who we see at the start putting on a tape of honking car horns and sirens so he can sleep. He is form New York. This portrait of the deep south as being very different from the rest of the US is an attractive one, although films that set up a beautiful, slow paced and friendly Southern town, often end up portraying it as corrupt underneath, the Southern way being all a front. To a certain extent this is the case here, but in many ways this film is a very loving portrayal. The characters are genuinely likeable and not bigoted. The homosexual affair between Jim and Billy is accepted, as is the drag queen Lady Chablis. The victim, Billy is spoilt but not all bad, Jim- charming to the end, even when things look bad for him.
The film didn't do too well at the US box office- maybe that lack of the pretty young things, the longish running time and the leisurely plot had something to do with it. I really enjoyed the characters and the atmosphere, but it was undeniably slow. Some of the voodoo ladies scenes were pretty silly, and a few scenes dragged. John Cusack seems to play identical roles in all his films(Grosse Point Blank excepted). He is always the moral center, the upstanding observer who may or may not be conned by a more charismatic leading figure. He could do with a few juicy cameos a give the dull leading parts a miss. Kevin Spacey on the other hand, while also often playing similar roles, has far more fun. He always seem to plays clever, conniving men, but here gets to be charming in a way he hasn't for a while. He is a great screen actor, one of the best in Hollywood in my opinion, always drawing the eye and making you wish he was in more scenes. This is the case here. We could have done with a bit more Spacey.
Alison Eastwood has been in a number of daddy's movies, but she is fine here in a pretty crappy role. As Cusack's love interest she is perfectly OK at looking pretty, as that is about all the role gives her. Lady Chablis, on the otehr hand, has a great role. I have no idea if it is an act, or if the actor takes off the dress and goes home in jeans, but she is great here. We get a brief glimpse of a quite funny stage act, and a hilarious scene where she gatecrashes a black soriety ball. She livens things up no end in a slightly dull courtroom sequence. A quick mention for Brit Jude Law, who really is a very pretty actor. He plays the white trash Billy , with a sulky smoulder.
A rather weak cop out ending, but while this beautifully filmed slice of Savannah society is a bit slow paced at times, I really enjoyed it. 8/10

April 1998

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