Archive for Thursday, November 27, 1997


November 27, 1997


The Pale Rider was ready for the first big night, but Kevin Spacey and John Cusack are left hanging when the sun comes up.

I should tell you right off the bat that I haven't read John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," the fact-based novel about the intoxicating charm of Savannah, Ga., and one of its high-falutin' types who becomes ensnared in a murder trial.

I know, it was on every best-seller list, every book club list, every conversation list in the country. Including, of course, Oprah's list.

And it's probably a good read. But I'm reluctant to pore over anything Oprah touts on her show. Call it my vain attempt to avoid pop culture overload.

However, I did read up on the new stuff director Clint Eastwood injected into the movie. And making changes to a popular book is sure to ruffle a few dust jackets.

Among the alterations: Writer John Kelso (John Cusack) assumes a big role in the defense of Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), the wealthy art/house collector accused of shooting his deadbeat lover, Billy Hanson (Jude Law). What was in actuality four separate trials involving Williams becomes one. And Eastwood's daughter, Alison Eastwood, is added as the character Mandy, Kelso's love interest.

Handled carefully, all of this could have enriched "Midnight."

Instead, after a barrage of enticing scenes, Eastwood goes into a free fall, and even the intriguing Cusack and the unshakable Spacey seem to grow frustrated at his lack of control over the material.

Of course, converting best-sellers is not new territory for Dirty Harry.

In "The Bridges of Madison County," Eastwood trimmed down the Iowa corn, honing it to a simple and endearing sensibility. But in "Midnight," Eastwood's basic style betrays him. There's just too much story here.

We meet the Southern-fried charmers gradually, without much grandeur.

Minerva (Irma P. Hall), a kooky voodoo priestess, talks to reincarnated squirrels and cackles at an airplane, which incidentally carries Kelso, the wise-beyond-his-years writer from "up North."

Then comes the loud University of Georgia graduate Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson), lawyer and friend to the nouveau-riche Williams.

Williams is the town's social butterfly, so to speak. His homosexuality remains unspoken, and therefore bothers no one in the genteel Dixie berg. Everyone wants an invitation to his annual Christmas party, a posh gathering replete with booze, Faberge eggs and sequined gowns that attracts Town and Country magazine. Enter Kelso.

His plan: Phone in a 500-word article on the party, then fly out. But the murder, and the town's reaction, puts him on the phone with his agent: "It's like 'Gone With the Wind' on mescaline," he blares into the phone. "Everyone is drunk and heavily armed. New York is boring."

He decides to churn out a literary mystery, one that would become the novel (by Berendt) that several years later would sell 2 million copies.

So he sets up shop and soaks up Savannah, including Minerva and her ceremonies in the titular "Garden," and the enigma-laden female impersonator Lady Chablis, played by "herself" with cat-like glee.

Then we get into the courtroom, and everything comes apart.

A fascinating vignette becomes a Perry Mason bore, as the long-winded Thompson talks and talks and talks. All of a sudden, he's practically the central character in a now legal tale, and we're left wondering what happened to all the color.

Sometimes a movie can meander aimlessly and still prove to be quite a pleasure. "Midnight" is almost that movie.

Clint has mellowed a lot in his old age. He's real fond of jazz. Jokes around on the set. Usually does just one take.

Clint tries to avoid a visual style, but here we can feel him avoiding a visual style. Sometimes the camera wobbles up and down uncontrollably, as if the crew forgot to set the grip.

The first half is one big party, all manner of jokes, coy witticisms, charm and beguilement. The second half is the morning after, and our man Clint may have had too much to drink.

-- Matt Gowen is a reporter for the Journal-World.

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