Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by John Lee Hancock, based on the book by John Berendt
Produced by Clint Eastwood, Arnold Stiefel
The film adaptation of John Berendt’s Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil — known in Savannah with equal exasperation and pride as “The Book” — may be a tone deaf murder mystery/comedy that never comes together despite a ponderous two and a half hour running time. It may also be a faithful adaptation of a book less enamored with John Grisham style plotting and more devoted to the dissonant rhythms of a town, chock full of eccentrics and historical anecdotes that fascinate despite never really coming together in 400 pages of paperback. What to make of this luxuriously made film by Clint Eastwood is that it’s about the murder trial of an antiques dealer, a fairly flat made-for-TV movie that could have easily taken place in Portland, Maine or Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil transposes scenes straight from the book without managing to capture anything like the feeling of reading the book. It’s a mystery that fails to feel mysterious. The setting is oddly flat, as if Eastwood was more comfortable shooting west of the Continental Divide than in the Deep South. His sensibilities seem to drift toward a feature length Perry Mason episode attempting to press into sheet metal what is strange and exotic in the book. Maybe Alan J. Pakula would have brought something atmospheric and kinky to the film, maybe no director would have. Kevin Spacey brings terrific panache to his performance, but John Cusack is given little to nothing to do as the writer unraveling a ho-hum murder.
Author John Kelso (John Cusack) arrives in Savannah, Georgia on behalf of Town & Country Magazine to write an article on the annual Christmas party of antiques dealer Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), whose civic accomplishments and invitation only social affairs are renowned in the Coastal Empire. Word of Kelso’s assignment gets around, particularly to singer Mandy Nicholls (Alison Eastwood) who lures the author to a party hosted by musician and scalawag Joe Odom (Paul Hipp). Kelso discovers that Williams asked Town & Country for him specifically based on a poorly received novel Kelso wrote, but the author is exposed to a different side of the nouveau riche renovator when the night of the party, Williams shoots his volatile young lover Billy Hanson (Jude Law) to death in self defense.
Exclaiming to his agent that Savannah is like “Gone With the Wind on mescaline”, Kelso ditches his magazine piece to write a book on the Jim Williams trial. Among the characters with a place in the mystery are transvestite entertainer The Lady Chablis (as herself) who insists on accompanying Kelso to a cotillion ball, industrial chemist Luther Driggers (Geoffrey Lewis) who serves as jury foreman despite his veiled threats to poison the city’s water supply, armed and daffy society dame Serena Dawes (Dorothy Loudon) and a “root doctor” named Minerva (Irma P. Hall) who Williams reaches out to for legal assistance along with his obtuse attorney (Jack Thompson). Minerva believes that Billy’s restless spirit must be appeased for Williams to have peace and she sees through the empty space in Kelso’s soul as well.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 29 users: 52% for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: 57 for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
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