Film Reviews

Denatured Dixie

In John Berendt's beguiling travel-cum-true-crime book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the people of Savannah (in Berendt's words) "flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world."

In Clint Eastwood's movie version, they're not hothouse plants -- just the wilted remnants left in an abandoned flower-shop refrigerator. Eastwood doesn't act in this low point of his oeuvre. But he's totally miscast as the director of a piece requiring baroque stylishness. In Eastwood's hands, Berendt's characters -- ranging from a narcissistic merry widow to a bon vivant who entertains in vacant mansions -- register with all the subtlety of the orangutan in Any Which Way You Can.

Berendt's book is a "nonfiction novel" that resembles a collection of entries for a Dixie "Talk of the Town" (one of its chapter headings). He uses the murder of a bisexual hustler by an upscale antiques dealer, Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), to study a sociological version of the greenhouse effect. The result is tremendously appealing. Even at the town's loosest and zaniest, Savannah's self-containment gives it a vibrancy and coherence denied to chaotic big cities or bland, sprawling suburbs. As he leads us through its exotic nooks and byways, Berendt himself is an "indulgent gardener."

By contrast, Eastwood and his screenwriter, John Lee Hancock, are brutal yard-boys, mowing a coarse and ugly path through a wild and unpredictable growth of madcap mores. They try to "hook" us with thumbnail sketches of local grotesques but do nothing either to flesh them out or to explore their roots in the region's gay, black and moneyed subcultures. This movie is all exposition; by the end, it's an imposition. What can you say about an adaptation that turns a character as pivotal as Williams's lover into a melodramatic prop? No longer a "walking streak of sex," he's a walking snarl.

The filmmakers have focused their paltry gifts of invention on a character who functions as a stand-in for Berendt: a sometime novelist named John Kelso (John Cusack), assigned to cover the antique dealer's renowned annual Christmas party for Town and Country magazine. They compress the book's sprawling time-frame: Williams murders his bisexual lover on the same night as the party; and Kelso ends up finding the key piece of evidence for the defense team. Kelso, unlike the bemused sophisticate who narrates the book, comes off like Jimmy Olson, Boy Reporter. (Along the way, he also gets to romance the director's daughter, Alison Eastwood, who plays a singing florist.)

As the voluptuously jaded Williams, Spacey at least gets to practice his patented Mona Lisa smirk. Cusack sinks while attempting a Gioconda double-take: He widens his eyes and drops his jaw repeatedly. It's not a performance, it's an act of desperation. And Eastwood lets Lady Chablis, a Savannah drag queen whom Berendt turned into a minor celebrity, play herself. Chablis may possess a unique charisma in real life -- she certainly charmed Berendt, who devoted far too much of his book to her -- but on-screen she's as inexpressive as late-period Cher.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Directed by Clint Eastwood. With Kevin Spacey, John Cusack and the Lady Chablis.

Rated R.
154 minutes.

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Michael Sragow