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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Any film which holds that New York City is boring when compared with Savannah, Georgia--and then goes right about proving it beyond reasonable doubt--has got to have something going for it. "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" surely does: it is, as its principal character says, "like 'Gone with the Wind' on mescaline." Effectively combining Gothic ambiance with supernatural elements, a Rashomon- like murder mystery, a gripping trial scene, and a host of eccentric characters who learn to live together and love one another, "Midnight" is a conceptual triumph, a true original. Score yet another for Clint Eastwood, once again in the role of director, whose stunning daughter Alison handles a fairly demanding role with confidence.

Photographed with lush colors by Jack N. Green in the handsome central historic district of Savannah, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" is a hefty two hours and thirty- five minutes in length, its complexities justifying its ambitious reach. Centering on a court case far more intricate than that shown in Paramount Pictures' "The Rainmaker" (released at the same time), "Midnight" is one of the those stories which expose outsiders to cultures of which they are only vaguely familiar, unmasking parts of the world which change their lives--and those of the local communities whose existence they touch.

The action is propelled by a visit from New York journalist John Kelso (John Cusack) to the southern town of Savannah, Georgia, to cover a lavish, annual Christmas bash for "Town and Country" magazine. The party is hosted each year by antiques dealer Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), who made a fortune eleven years earlier reconstructing old homes and has filled his own 137-year-old home with expensive relics. His is an area filled with people who march to the beats of their own drummers, including a man who walks an invisible Labrador Retriever, another who is seen in the company of his pet horseflies, a lively widow who attends Williams' functions with a drink in one hand and a small gun in the other, and a violent young man who remains on Williams's payroll despite his history of threats against his boss. Those who do not "make the cut" and must settle for making their own festivities include a voodoo priestess who communes with the dead and an outrageous transvestite who does stand-up comedy at the local club.

What changes the lives of the journalist, who had written only one minor book, and the millionaire party-giver, who mutates from the town celebrity to an inmate in the county jail, is the death by gunshot of the frenzied Billy Hanson (Jude Law) who, we soon learn, is Williams's homosexual lover. Pleading self-defense, Williams is nonetheless indicted for Murder One: the outcome of the trial is dependent in no small part on the community's prejudice against homosexual affairs on the one hand and the affection, on the other, which many have for young Billy--who had serviced quite a number of both sexes to their satisfaction.

While the murder trial holds the story's center, director Eastwood has lots of time to meander about the town, closely developing several characters to show their effects on the rather innocent Yankee who seems at all times on the verge of opening his mouth in surprise. Minerva (Irma P. Hall), the voodoo priestess who speaks with equal ease to squirrels and to the dead, meets the New Yorker at a gravesite in the titled garden, a place in which good is performed between the hours and 11:30 p.m. and midnight followed by evil during the subsequent half hour. She insists that Billy's body cannot rise to heaven until justice is served, and her machinations prove crucial to the outcome of the case. Much attention is given as well to the Lady Chablis, a transvestite who plays herself in the film, and one whose role is quite well acted though repetitious, overblown and by now thoroughly hackneyed. Perhaps the most vivid scene displays not the party in Williams's historic home but the debutante cotillion ball, an annual event in the lives of the city's Black upper crust.

Filled with humor, metaphysical ruminations, and superior ensemble performances especially by the inimitable Kevin Spacey, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" is in no small part an expression of love for an American South which has all but passed by in our post-bellum era, an area with pockets of individuality that easily rival urban centers like New York, L.A. and Chicago.

Copyright 1997 Harvey Karten

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