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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Starring: Kevin Spacey, John Cusack
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rated: R
RunTime: 135 Minutes
Release Date: November 1997
Genres: Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Tim Black, Lady Chablis, Doug Dearth, Alison Eastwood, Irma P. Hall, Anne Haney, Kevin Harry, Paul Hipp, Jude Law

Review by MrBrown
3 stars out of 4

After spending three years on the bestseller list, John Berendt's Midnight and the Garden of Good and Evil has been brought to the screen by Clint Eastwood in a film that is not likely to stay too long at the top of the box office charts--provided it even gets there at all. While Midnight is, in the end, an intriguing and handsome production, watching this very long, leisurely paced film is like reading a book--not necessarily a bad thing, but not exactly what one is in the mood for when watching a film.

At its core, the fact-based Midnight is a courtroom drama, documenting the 1981 trial of Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), a wealthy Savannah antiques dealer charged with the murder of Billy Hanson (Jude Law), one of the help at Jim's estate and his sometime lover. Writing a book on this sensational case--and investigating the truth behind the fateful night--is John Kelso (John Cusack, playing a fictional stand-in for Berendt), a New York writer originally sent down to Savannah to write a Town and Country magazine article on Jim's swanky annual Christmas party.

The plot, however, appears to be of little concern to Eastwood and screenwriter John Lee Hancock, who, in trying to capture the feel of Berendt's book, are more interested in the colorful array of characters John encounters through his research and investigation. Among those he gets involved with are Jim's smooth talking attorney, Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson); Joe Odom (Paul Hipp), an ex-lawyer who dreams of opening a piano bar; Mandy Nichols (Alison Eastwood, Clint's daughter), a free-spirited flower shop worker in whom John develops a romantic interest; Minerva (Irma P. Hall), a voodoo priestess who aids Jim's case; and, most notably, The Lady Chablis (played by him/herself), a flamboyant transvestite who lived with one of Billy's lovers. Yet while these are all interesting people who together make up a varied cross section of the Savannah population, most have little more than a tangential connection to the main proceedings, serving to further bloat the running time, which, as it stands, clocks in at over two and a half hours. The presence of a large, novelesque canvas of characters is commendable, but Hancock cannot quite make it work because, interesting as they are, they are not given much to do that is of equal interest; the background players' main duty is to react to Jim's crime and subsequent trial. An exception to this would be Minerva, but even this voodoo angle, which comes to play a major role, is not incorporated into the story in the smoothest of manners, popping up out of nowhere midway (to lend the film its title) only to resurface at center stage in the final act.

Eastwood-directed films are known for their slow pace, and Midnight is no exception. Any slowly-paced film runs the risk of losing its audience's attention, but Midnight does not, thanks to an engrossing plot hook and the polished work by cinematographer Jack N. Green, production designer Henry Bumstead, and the acting ensemble, which is strong across the board. Spacey, not surprisingly, does a finely modulated job, managing to make Jim sympathetic without diluting any of his unsavory nature; he just may have nailed his second Oscar nod for the year (the first would be for his superb supporting work in L.A. Confidential). But as good as he and Cusack are, the movie is stolen from right under them and all else involved in the picture by The Lady Chablis. True, he/she is playing him/herself, but he/she does it with such brash, go-for-broke insouciance that everything take a backseat to him/her whenever he/she is onscreen. A Supporting Actor nod should be in his/her future, but given the notoriously conservative tastes of the notoriously conservative Academy, that can be safely ruled out.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil did keep me engaged all through its lengthy running time but perhaps not in the way it should have. As a film, Midnight is a good _read_, paced slowly to accommodate thorough exploration and digestion of the little details that are interesting if not particularly important. However, a bit more tightening and focus would have made the thoughtful and literate Midnight a better _watch_.

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