Films

Voodoo in vain

Narrative hocus-pocus can't save this adaptation

Brian D. Johnson December 1 1997
Films

Voodoo in vain

Narrative hocus-pocus can't save this adaptation

Brian D. Johnson December 1 1997

Voodoo in vain

Narrative hocus-pocus can't save this adaptation

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Films

It is a true tale of murder, gay sex and black magic in the Deep South, with an exoticism as thick as Spanish moss. Jim Williams, a gay socialite in Savannah, Ga., kills a young hustler while hosting his annual Christmas party, one of the town’s most elegant soirées. Other characters include a voodoo priestess, a black drag queen and an old coot who wanders around town with a vial of poison in his pocket. What’s remarkable is that a skilled director,

MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL

Clint Eastwood, has turned these spicy elements into such a lifeless gumbo. John Berendt’s “nonfiction novel,” Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, has spent almost four years on The New York Times best-seller list. Screenwriter John Lee Hancock, who adapted it for the screen, initially refused the assignment, declaring: “This book resists adaptation the way a cat resists a bath.” As it turns out, his first instincts may have been correct.

Directed by Clint Eastwood Attempting to conjure up Savannah’s spooky, eccentric charm, Eastwood meticulously crafts his scenes at the pace of a southern drawl. But rather than conveying the languor and magic of the Deep South, the film invites deep sleep. Stretched over 2 y2 hours, it is slow, plodding and prosaic.

Midnight is the 20th movie that Eastwood has directed, yet only the third in which he has not acted (after Breezy and Bird). In fact, there would be no part for him, because the story lacks a strong protagonist. Williams (Kevin Spacey) is the most intriguing character, but remains maddeningly inscrutable. And John Kelso Oohn Cusack), a fictionalized version of the author, is basically just a man writing a book. He first comes to Savannah from New York City to do a magazine piece about Williams and his legendary Christmas party. Suddenly he finds himself at ground zero in a crime scene, surrounded by all the elements of a southern gothic novel. “This place is fantastic,” he says. “It’s like Gone with the Wind on mescaline.”

Although Cusack is credible, he has to spend most of the movie simply reacting to things around him with slackjawed disbelief. Attempts to juice up the writer’s life for the screen seem bogus— notably a half-baked romantic subplot with a party girl named Mandy (Alison Eastwood, the director’s daughter). Pumping some life into the movie, drag queen Lady Chablis plays herself with show-stopping flair. But eventually, even she gets to be a drag—a cute diversion in an anti-climactic courtroom drama. Williams’s lawyer sums it up best when he tells the jury: “If some TV writer were to come to Perry Mason with this case, he’d say, Well, that’s not a very good story.’ ” Eastwood may get some credit for subverting his macho image with a gay-sensitive walk on the wild side, but this Midnight stroll is strangely pedestrian.