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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

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Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

"This place is fantastic," John Kelso, the new reporter for "Town and Country" magazine, tells his agent. "It's like 'Gone with the Wind' on mescaline." There in Savannah to cover a famous Christmas party, he finds himself right in the middle of a murder investigation, so he decides to stay and write a book about it.

Most critics have their least favorite genres. One of mine is the movie whose appeal derives solely from a string of extremely quirky characters. Conversely, one of my favorites is the courtroom drama. The former genre is extremely prevalent whereas the latter has fallen somewhat out of favor. The few courtroom dramas that are released are all too often mediocre. Last year's best was the devastating documentary, PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS

As America's reading public knows, MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL is based on John Berendt's wildly popular book by the same name. Since the film contains both a murder trial and a host of eccentric characters, I went in excited but with reservations. Although the movie, directed by Clint Eastwood, is not as good as I'd hoped, it is a delicious satire on the South. As a native Southerner, I found the accents true, the culture believable, and the jokes dead-on.

The beauty of John Lee Hancock's script is the fine line he walks between realism and parody. All of the characters are believable, but, with the exception of Kelso, each has his or her own special oddities. Although Eastwood comments in the press notes on how impressed he was with the way Hancock boiled a complex book down to its essence, more pruning still would have improved the final product. Paul Hipp, for example, plays an inconsequential character named Joe Odom, whose whole part could and should have been expunged.

As John Kelso, John Cusack gives another great performance. Unlike his wonderful acting in GROSSE POINTE BLANK, where he provided the humor, in MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL he spends his time in reaction shots. Since of necessity Kelso has to hang around with a black transvestite named Lady Chablis, Cusack has many opportunities for displaying his shocked, wild-eyed look as Lady Chablis hits on Kelso with abandon.

As one of the almost completely comical characters in the show, Lady Chablis plays herself. She gets some hilarious one-liners, and she has a gift for physical comedy that keeps the show from ever dragging when she is on the screen. And her slinky, sequined dresses are to die for.

In an old moneyed South, Kevin Spacey stars in the film as Jim Williams, a nouveau riche antiques dealer. ("Yes, I am nouveau riche, but it's the riche that counts.") He holds court in his block-long mansion, and all the rich and famous come to call. Spacey, with the exception of his low key middle part, owns every scene he is in. He oozes charm and confidence from every pore. With a little black mustache and a sleek silk vest, he sets the gold standard for attire in a fashion conscious city. (The rich and famous at his parties have their own stories. One pair of grande dames discuss what caliber of pistols their husbands had used to commit suicide.)

Eastwood stages the scenes with such naturalness that you feel right at home. As the warm southern night air drives party goers outside, they are serenaded by that southern minstrel, the lowly cricket. Ah, the living is easy.

Into this den of gentility, comes a tattooed street hustler named Billy Hanson, played by Jude Law from GATTACA. Although Jim is known to be gay, he does not speak of it in society. Billy, Jim's lover, has no such compunctions. During Jim's famous Christmas party, Billy shows up and threatens Jim with a broken bottle. When Billy later turns up dead in Jim's living room, Jim is arrested for the murder. The bulk of the movie has John doing investigative research for his book and helping Jim.

Along the way John runs into a string of the local curios. My favorite is the guy who keeps house flies on short strings so they all buzz around his head. There is a reason for this and for why he always carries a bottle of poison with him, but I will let you find out. Another guy walks a dog who died two decades ago. And yes, there's a good reason for that one too.

Irma P. Hall appears in a small role as Minerva, the voodoo expert who, one midnight, takes John and Jim to the Garden of Good and Evil. "To understand the living, you got to commune with the dead," she explains to John.

Movie trials need good defense attorneys. As Sonny Seiler, Jack Thompson gives a relaxed performance as Jim's smooth-talking Southern lawyer. A college football fan so loyal that he leaves at key points during the trial preparation to see his beloved Georgia Bulldogs play, he nevertheless, subtlety outfoxes the prosecution.

Finally, in a large cast Clint's daughter Alison Eastwood stands out as an attractive woman named Mandy Nichols, who helps John in his investigation. And more.

"Truth is in the eye of the beholder," Jim tells John. "You believe what you choose, and I'll believe what I know." A film that revels in ambiguity, it is a delightful piece of entertainment even if not the major film that I expected.

MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL runs a little too long at 2:15. It is rated R for some profanity, some violence, and mature themes. It would be fine for most teenagers.

Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes

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