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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

(1997) ** 1/2 R
155 min. Warner Bros.. Director: Clint Eastwood. Cast: Kevin Spacey, John Cusack, Jack Thompson, Irma P. Hall, Jude Law.

Clint Eastwood's film of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil shares with its bestselling source material a wealth of history, and an inherent confusion of fact and fiction. Eastwood lays an undercurrent of the transformative power of art beneath the impossibly unwieldy story, and the goodwill this tactic buys may justify the journey for many.

Eastwood's adaptation will undoubtedly frustrate devout readers of John Berendt's book, for, despite the two-hour-plus length, the essence of the story remains elusive. Cusack is the Berendt surrogate, John Kelso, a magazine scribe visiting Savannah, Georgia to cover a society function. Kelso stumbles into a juicy story: party host Jim Williams (Spacey) shoots his young lover, Billy Hanson (Jude Law), ostensibly in self-defense. As Williams faces murder charges and the sideways glances of the largely homophobic community, Kelso chases down the truth by way of an eccentric cast of characters. Foremost among these is a drag queen known as The Lady Chablis, played by... The Lady Chablis.

Such brushes with the reality behind the book (the true events transpired in the early 80s), and Eastwood's use of real Savannah locations provide an engrossing backdrop to the story, but also stand in stark contrast to the moments which ring false. The Lady Chablis nails her scenes, but Alison Eastwood, playing a character found neither in real life nor the novel, is left asea in a pointless romantic subplot. The inclusion of this subplot and the emphasis on the intrigues of the trial are obvious attempts to counterbalance the gay characters and other "eccentricities" of plot. The result: a mostly conventional film trying hard to maintain its credibility as an unconventional story.

While the film is, to put it charitably, evenly paced, it is never boring. Eastwood's direction hits the mark more often than not (his camera creeps more effectively through the Southern mansions than the pivotal garden of the title), and Spacey is typically hypnotic and wholly credible. Cusack provides the light touch with considerable aplomb.

Ultimately, while Eastwood scores some memorable moments (many due to the deliciously uninhibited Chablis), Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil will be remembered as an uneven curiosity, revisited only by fans of the novel and the leading men.

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