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NewCityNet Carpetbaggers

By Ray Pride

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  The South is all there is. In movies, potboilers and even literary fiction, it seems like the last repository of mystery left to our geography is in the warm-weathered, warm-blooded expanses of the American South. There are those who argue that history is over, the cultural difference fades away. Nah, there is still the South.

To take only a couple of examples, there are the Memphis-set pulp thrillers of John Grisham, Carl Hiassen's comic novels of eccentrics in a maniacal Florida, Karl Childers, the simple-minded Arkansan of Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade," and one of my favorite movies of this year, Robert Duvall's "The Apostle," a reverent, comic picaresque of a Pentecostal preacher on the lam from the law and God. And then there's John Berendt's three-years-and-counting staple of the New York Times hardcover bestseller list, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." Elsewhere, two centuries of American myth has been mined to death. Where Westerns are a genre left to ghosts, TNT and Kevin Costner, and the film-noir backdrop of Southern California's sour cesspool is reduced to a setting for straight-to-cable femme-fatale-with-a-bosom-of-gold-trash, the South is a place where good art and cheap gawking can take place side-by-side. Why was Ken Burns' static, talky "Civil War" documentary such a national fixation? And on the other end of the scale, why are drawling redneck truckers and "Deliverance" jokes staples of sitcoms?

For whatever reasons of trade and custom, the two largest Hollywood films that opened right before Thanksgiving, "The Rainmaker" and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," are set in the South, character-plentiful dramas with dollops of comedy and extended courtroom scenes. I haven't lived down South in years but I miss it more every day, and particularly when moviemakers like Francis Coppola and Clint Eastwood get little glimmers of geography and light, simmers of the commonplace and the plainly unlikely, just right. I've actually been happily snookered by even indifferent Grisham movies such as "The Client" and "A Time To Kill": glimpses of state highways and dirt roads, of fields of cotton or rangy, wide-mouthed, fast-rushing rivers make me irrationally happy.

Coppola and Eastwood are both talented craftsmen, honored elders in the movie world. But neither are native to the South. Among folks from the South, there's always a suspicion of carpetbaggers, of Yankees coming down for a little taste of the exotic, with ribs on the side. Truly, there are no eccentrics in the South. There is no commonplace, only the quotidian. That's the gift of Berendt's book, as he took years in Savannah, Georgia, to let himself steep, not only in the story but in the city's odd parade of locals.

While there's little even the most gifted director could do to rise above a John Grisham potboiler, Coppola has confected a high-toned, tender rendition of dreary material. You can guess the plot -- kid lawyer (sweet-faced, wild-eyed Matt Damon) and comic sidekick (Danny DeVito) go up against the world (an evil insurance company, in the incarnation of eye-rolling, facial-ticcing Jon Voight) and after a few twists, make a magnificent court win of it all. The usual Grisham stuff. But, with the help of a precise, piercing voice-over written by Michael Herr, who did the same favor for "Apocalypse Now," Coppola does the most he can with limited material.

The film's greatest pleasure comes from the radiantly imagined Memphis, owing in large part to double Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll. The temperature of the movie, of its late-summer Tennessee, is a kind of sepulchral warmth. There are niceties that would mean so much in a great movie, from the slightly exaggerated high and low angles that take in odd perspectives of interiors, to small details such as Claire Danes' battered wife, sitting in a wheelchair in a hospital cafeteria, bare feet flexed, leg arced, defining a long shot as she first meets crusading young lawyer Damon. But what finally gives "The Rainmaker"'s portrait of a young man learning to be an ambulance chaser its lasting savor are the autobiographical implications of Coppola's telling. For years, he's threatened to settle his financial responsibilities and return to personal, self-generated movies like "The Conversation." When the young lawyer turns his back on Mammon and Memphis, one roots as much for Coppola's 58-year-old hopes as the young lawyer's.

Flipping through the pages of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," you want for a Robert Altman movie that probably exceeds Altman's reach even at the height of his powers. Where a jam-packed movie, both kaleidoscopic and filled with fireworks, could come from Berendt's nonfiction book, Eastwood and writer John Lee Hancock ("A Perfect World") take another tack. The core conflict is social, with colorful, nouveau riche, closeted antiques dealer Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey, in a performance of silken splendor) being accepted into the high society of Savannah, as well as the demimonde, where he finds his rough-trade hustler boyfriend (Jude Law).

Eastwood's pace seems leisurely and generous, but after a few days, disappointment settles in and you're back to thinking what a great movie could have been made of Berendt's work. The most conspicuous flub is John Cusack's performance. While Cusack's John Kelso is meant to be a stand-in for Berendt, on reflection, he seems a better representation of Eastwood. Eastwood's never been afraid of letting himself look foolish, from the orangutan-shines of "Every Which Way But Loose" to the baby-oil s-m hijinx in "Tightrope." In "Midnight," every slack-jawed and gaping reaction shot by Cusack, happily making mental note of all the colorful oddballs around him, makes one think of Eastwood. While the feeling is not one of condescension, it doesn't seem to be one of comprehension, either. A good example would be the very funny, but overextended appearances of one Lady Chablis, a trash-talking African-American preoperative transsexual who was friends with the case's actual players. Something doesn't ring right at the end of the movie. A portrait of an outsider, Jim Williams, working with wit and style to become an insider in Savannah, needs more than an outsider to the South, who simply watches, never grasping the events before his eyes or the camera. Where "Rainmaker" is a nicely appointed potboiler, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" may very well be a locals-friendly, yet still classic case of carpetbagging.

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