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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, Jack Thompson, Alison Eastwood, Lady Chablis, Irma P. Hall, Paul Hipp, Jude Law. (1997, R, 154 min.)

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 21, 1997

Eastwood's film, adapted from John Berendt's phenomenally bestselling “nonfiction novel,” is as entertaining and outrageous a confection as its source material, half Southern gothic and half Our Town on goofdust. Cusack plays John Kelso, a stringer for Town and Country magazine who arrives in the verdant squares of Savannah, Georgia to interview socialite Jim Williams (Spacey) and document the man's annual Christmas party at the resplendent and palatial Mercer House. However, when Williams' violent live-in lover Billy (Law) is mysteriously murdered in the small hours following the party, Kelso decides to forego his 500-word puff piece in favor of undertaking a novel about the case and, by association, the people of Savannah in general (he himself refers to the town as being “like Gone With the Wind on mescaline”). As Williams suavely languishes in the pokey (of all our modern leading men, only Spacey can rot in jail with such sexy/cool savoir-faire -- a tossed-off scene in which he attempts to place an overseas phone call to Sotheby's while being harassed by a hulking, hollering inmate is howlingly funny), Kelso roams Savannah, gathering material not only for his book but also for Williams' defense attorney Sonny Seiler (Thompson). In short order he meets Williams' neighbor Joe Odom, a piano-playing, whiskey-drinking (everybody drinks in Savannah) bon vivant with a penchant for hosting his own wild nights at the home of whomever he happens to be house-sitting for at the time; Mandy Nichols (Alison Eastwood), a forthright and stunning young Southern belle who gladly assists him in puzzling out the Williams case; the voodoo priestess Minerva (Hall); and the Lady Chablis (herself), a boisterous transvestite-chanteuse who takes a shine to Kelso and serves as the fiery, outrageous soul of Eastwood's film. There are many amazing things in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, not the least of which is the fact that these are all real Savannah citizens being portrayed here -- conclusive proof, as if any were needed, that truth is indeed stranger (and more perversely humorous) than fiction. Screenwriter John Lee Hancock has done an admirable job of condensing Berendt's novel, eliminating some of the novel's lesser characters and altering the ending in favor of imbuing a more final note to the proceedings. Eastwood Sr., for his part, manages the wonderful ensemble cast remarkably well, especially for someone more inclined toward action and Western films (Bird and Bridges of Madison County excepted), but the real star here is the scene-stealing Lady Chablis, who deserves special recognition for her brash, saucy, utterly effervescent portrayal of herself. Unlike anything else out there right now, Midnight is a wholly original creation, crossed with shadows and light and the everyday madness of Savannah and its remarkable citizens.

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