John Berendt's nonfiction best seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil portrays Savannah, Ga., as a lovely, gracious and self-absorbed town with a dual personality: a rigidly traditional, ritual-oriented high society; and a cloaked subculture of hustlers, cross-dressers and voodoo practitioners.
Their common bond is a love of parties, fueled by massive amounts of alcohol. These two faces of Savannah meet after antiques dealer Jim Williams shoots and kills a questionable young man in his employ.
An invitation to one of Williams' lavish, formal parties at the elegant Mercer House is a highly prized Savannah status symbol, but more than a few embarrassing secrets of this charming town's underside are revealed during his murder trials.
Screenwriter John Lee Hancock has streamlined Berendt's book into a standard fish-out-of-water story with an extended courtroom sequence. John Kelso (played with slack-jawed incredulity by John Cusack) is a stand-in for Berendt, a New Yorker sent by Town and Country magazine to cover the Christmas party thrown by Williams (a slyly manipulative Kevin Spacey), who's nouveau riche and gay but manages to move in Savannah's rarefied circles.
Director Clint Eastwood renders the mysterious world of Midnight in the blandest way imaginable, making Savannah itself look as innocuously pleasant as a southern California suburb (Jack N. Green's cinematography is disappointingly flat). Even a key scene where Kelso and Williams visit a graveyard accompanied by a voodoo priestess (Irma P. Hall) is visually and emotionally uninvolving.
Other than Kelso and Williams, everyone else in Midnight is relegated to the sidelines, with the exception of transvestite nightclub performer the Lady Chablis (playing herself) whom Eastwood grants free rein. But a little of Chablis' sassy egotism goes a long way, and Eastwood's heavy dose makes the already long Midnight (135 minutes) drag even more.
But among the supporting characters are some truly terrific performances, particularly Jack Thompson as Williams' lawyer, who gently but persuasively controls the courtroom like an expert snake charmer. Alison Eastwood (Clint's daughter) plays her standard singer-love interest role as someone quite comfortable in her own skin and at ease with Savannah's laid-back eccentricity.
The elder Eastwood relies heavily on standards like "That Old Black Magic" by Savannah-born songwriter Johnny Mercer to set the mood, but his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil contains very little magic of any kind.
E-mail comments to [email protected].