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Tucson Weekly Southern Discomfort

"Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil" is annoyingly pointless and too long.

By Stacey Richter

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  EVEN THE TITLE is too long: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? Like everything about this movie, the latest from director Clint Eastwood, the title is vague and pretentious and lacks focus. Not that it doesn't have some good parts (Evil!), but evil things must end, too; hopefully before they've meandered for two-and-a-half lazy hours.

This movie just drifts. After the first hour, a cocktail party ambiance kicked in among the audience. We began to discuss the on-screen action, and nobody told anyone else to shut up. It must have been apparent to all, by then, that this damn thing was going to take its time getting wherever it was going, and no one was in danger of missing anything. In fact, it might be better if we missed something. (I imagine the audience at Andy Warhol's 12-hour Empire--one static shot of the Empire State Building--behaving in much the same manner.) Also, it was sort of difficult sometimes, to figure out what was going on, and a lot of the whispered asides had to do with questions about who did what to whom, and when. And if it mattered.

So, as near as I can tell Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is about, um, how both those things (good, evil) lurk in the human heart. Specifically in the heart of Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), a charming Southern gentleman who commits a murder in self defense--or so he says. The film is based on a book which is based on a true story, so it isn't surprising that we end up in the courtroom, or that the other main character is a writer. John Kelso (John Cusack) plays a New York journalist who has come to Williams' hometown of Savannah to write a fluff piece on his annual Christmas party. After the murder, he changes his mind and decides to stay in Savannah and write a book.

John Kelso browses among the colorful eccentrics of Savannah like a bee in a botanical garden, gathering "honey" for his little book project. He meets witty drag queens (The Lady Chablis, playing herself), society matrons, and Southern belles, in no particular order. As far as I could tell, this guy never works. Those of us who fancy ourselves writers became annoyed by this. He drinks, he goes to great parties, he interviews fascinating characters and falls in love, but he doesn't even have a computer in his apartment. Please.

And that's just the beginning of the list of implausibilities. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has plot holes you could maneuver the entire title through. Did I mention the voodoo priestess? Or the debutante cotillion? Eastwood clearly has a love of eccentric characters, and there are times in this movie when all the craziness is delightful. "This town is like Gone With the Wind on mescaline!" Kelso tells his agent, and there is a sense of a loopy, Southern sensibility that's charming. But Eastwood forgets to tell a story. What's left is a collection of loosely affiliated scenes and a slowly receding center.

The absolute best part of this movie is Kevin Spacey. He's great as Jim Williams, a suave, witty, stinking rich Southern gentlemen who comes off as cross between Rhett Butler and Oscar Wilde. In the early scenes, Williams and Kelso waltz around one another while the tension slowly builds. Williams calls Kelso "dear boy" and looks to be on the verge of licking him. But after Williams goes to jail, the fun goes out of the Garden. Williams is at his best in his element--trading quips with other rich Southerners--and he just doesn't seem as exciting as a prisoner. And he's not nearly as well dressed.

It's no surprise when, at the end of this movie, things really start falling apart. All of the subplots are tied up, neatly, and some last minute ghost-story stuff rounds out the main plot. Everybody is either happy, or dead, and the only surprise is that this movie got made at all.

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