Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

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Affectionate adaptation of funky super-best-selling novel

Oct 6, 2004
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Pros:cast, music, atmosphere, DVD collection of reflections on real-life characters

Cons:a bit slow and too focused on the John Cusack character

The Bottom Line: enjoyable as a movie filled with eccentric characters


Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

I managed to avoid the considerable hoopla about John Berendt's true-crime Southern melodrama Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a book that remained on best-seller lists seemingly forever and then bounced back onto them when the movie came out in 1997. My ambivalence about Clint Eastwood as a director was in a negative phase after the absurdity of "Absolute Power," and I wasn't ready for another shot (as it were) at killing a sexual partner, even one with Jude Law playing another difficult and demanding boy-toy (as in "Wilde"), Kevin Spacey playing a Southern version of his own attempt to remain closeted despite widespread discussion, and John Cusack playing an earnest participant observer. Finally getting around to watching the movie on DVD, I'll readily grant that all are good in their parts, though it seems to me that there is far too much of Cusack playing detective (and astonishingly being the only reporter covering a sensational murder trial (the movie conflates four into one), too little of Law and Spacey.

The pace of the movie seems quite leisurely, especially in the first 45 minutes or so of establishing characters. The locals are eccentric enough to maintain the reputation of Southern Gothic, but there is too much time spent on establishing the nebbishness (perhaps supposed to be read as innocence and naivété) of Cusack's character, John Kelso, a New York writer who has produced one little-noticed book, lost the woman who expected him to be a big success, and taken an assignment to travel to Savannah, Georgia to write a 500-word article for Town and Country on the legendary annual Christmas party of Jim Williams (Spacey), a self-avowedly noveau riche wheeler and dealer in antiques who renovated a mansion built by Savannah native Johnny Mercer's grandfather. (Much of the movie was filmed in the Mercer/Williams mansion, and many of the guests at the filmed Christmas party had attended Williams's parties.)

John has plenty of material, including extensive confiding by Williams, and observation of a confrontation between Williams and his young, drunk, pouty "employee" (and obviously past and/or present sexual obsession) Billy Carl Hanson (Jude Law). Having turned in after the party, Jim is awakened by multiple sirens, stumbles from the guest house to the main house and finds Williams being interrogated by police with Billy Carl dead in a pool of his blood staining a Persian carpet. Taking advantage of Jim's entry into the crime scene, Williams's cat also slips in (a point that becomes important later on).

Rather unbelievably, this Yankee interloper penetrates the mysteries of sex, madness, violence, and mint juleps to come up with crucial evidence and to recruit a flamboyant drag performer, the Lady Chablis playing herself, to testify. The good-ole-boy lawyer, Sonny Seiler (portrayed by Australian actor Jack Thompson, while the real Seiler has been elevated to the bench to portray the judge in the murder trial), who turns out to be a master in the courtroom, is unbelievably willing to turn over investigation (and witness recruitment) to this outsider. I'm told that the character of the writer is vastly inflated from book to screen—as well as being supplied two feminine love interests (that is, two feminine characters, one of whom is biologically female and the daughter of producer/director Eastwood; the other is black and biologically male) who take an interest in the alien white boy. Private eyes dodge romantic entanglements, and John Kelso wards off ardent advances to pursue evidence to exonerate Jim Williams. (He largely gives up on finding The Truth about what happened before Jim shot Billy Carl.)

There's also the voodoo priestess (Irma P. Hall), and the inventor with living flies tied to flexible stakes from his collar, the man walking an invisible (long-dead) dog, the University of Georgia mascot owned by Sonny Seiler, the lawyer turned lounge pianist, a widow who hardly ever gets out of best, and more. Eastwood genially looks around the human zoo and lets Lady Chablis loose on screen. All set to Johnny Mercer songs sung by a range of old-time singers, plus Spacey, and both Alison and Clint Eastwood. It's hard to dislike the movie. The narrative sprawl and lengthy takes perhaps owe something to Eastwood's apprenticeship with Sergio Leone, but would probably be better with an infusion of Don Siegel adrenaline. (I realize that a body count of one is very low for any descendant of Leone or Siegel!) I like character development, but even simplifying the legal drama, the movie seems too meandering and a bit enervated (one adjective no one would apply to the Lady Chablis). It leaves Jim Williams too enigmatic (through no fault of Kevin Spacey). John Kelso phones his editor that he is staying on because he is enmeshed in something like "Gone with the Wind on mescaline," but it seems more like The Long Hot Summer on heroin.

The DVD appears to be loaded with extras, but most are 1-3 screens of text. The exception is a map with vignettes about the real-life analogs of various characters, some who play themselves in the movie, along with the real Sonny Seiter and Jim Williams's sister providing information on others. Although requiring an annoying number of returns to the map (rather than providing the ability to play through all), this feature is very interesting—almost interesting enough to send me in pursuit of the book, and interesting enough to make me hold onto the DVD to watch the movie again some time.

There is no commentary track. It's not surprising that the legendarily laconic Eastwood did not want to comment on what he put on the screen, but there has to be entertaining stories of the filming, and I'd have asked Sonny Seiter and Kevin Spacey to record a commentary track. There is a theatrical trailer and an unpersuasive soundtrack promo. And information on the bulldog Yugo (played in the movie by the son of the one ca. 1981).


Recommend this product? Yes


Viewing Format: DVD

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