"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," Clint Eastwood's adaptation of John Berendt's best-selling book, is a failure, but it isn't easy to pin down why.
Perhaps it's because the movie is at least a half-hour too long. Maybe it's because its few adequate performances are outweighed by the shockingly inadequate ones.
It could be that the book's eccentrics and reprobates were so vivid that a screen version can only disappoint. Or that the rarefied universe of Berendt's Savannah can never be re-created within the confines of a feature film.
Most likely, the answer is all of the above. But whatever the reason, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" takes a captivating book that combined literary journalism, regional anthropology, true crime and a good yarn, and makes it a real snooze.
In Eastwood's version, Berendt's persona has been fictionalized the form of journalist John Kelso (John Cusack), who has been assigned by Town & Country magazine to cover one of Savannah, Ga.'s, most cherished rituals: the yearly Christmas party thrown by Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), an antiques restorer and closeted homosexual.
When Williams is implicated in the murder of his young assistant (Jude Law), a sinewy gearhead with an alcohol and drug problem, Kelso is compelled to trash the puff piece and stay on for the trial.
He rightly senses that this story is book material, and in no time he's met the book's loopy cast of characters: the Lady Chablis, a flirtatious, sexually ambiguous nightclub entertainer; Joe Odom, a would-be lounge pianist who house-sits for Savannah's finest families, then uses their places for wild parties; Luther Driggers, who likes to lasso flies and carry them around with him; Patrick, the invisible dog; Serena Dawes, a Derringer-packing dowager; and Minerva, a conjure-woman who plays a mysterious role in Williams' case.
Berendt's 392-page book gracefully blended reportage and the elements of good fiction to create a world that, while real, became altogether larger than life. But in adapting this complex work, screenwriter John Lee Hancock has reduced Berendt's beloved gaggle of local characters to a parade of stereotypes.
The nuance of Berendt's narrative, which allowed for just the right amount of ambiguity (we're never quite sure if these folks are naive, crazy or masters of manipulation), has also been sacrificed for easy watching. On screen, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" is not a mysterious, atmospheric evocation of place, it's a cavalcade of Southern kooks. (Oddly, Eastwood has also sucked the weather out of the book. After a few establishing shots of Savannah's picturesque town square, this "Midnight" looks like it could have been filmed in Des Moines.)
As Kelso, the usually appealing John Cusack has decided to act with his mouth: The more shocked or outraged he is, the more agape he becomes. In the film's strongest turn, Kevin Spacey glides through his role as the striving, preternaturally self-possessed Williams as if borne on a river of bourbon and molasses.
But the rest of the performances might as well have been carved out of Georgia pine. Especially painful to behold is Eastwood's daughter, Alison, who carries water as a discursive and gratuitous love interest for Kelso. The outrageous Lady Chablis, who plays herself in the film's most unlabored performance, steals the show with a hypnotic, disturbing power. Still, even she comes across as just another freak.
One of the most potent things about Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" was how expertly the author blended truth and fiction, how gracefully he appeared in and receded from the story and the gentility with which he wielded his pen to eviscerate his characters, even as he made readers love them. It's a rare film that could aspire to, much less achieve, such layers of meaning and manipulation.
Maybe a good documentarian could have done it. In this case, even with a filmmaker as distinguished as Eastwood, the truth -- at least Berendt's version of it -- remains far more entertaining than fiction.
'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil'
Starring Kevin Spacey, John Cusack, Jack Thompson, Irma P. Hall, Alison Eastwood
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Released by Warner Brothers
Rated R (language, brief violence)
Sun score: **
Pub Date: 11/21/97