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Clint Goes South

Clint Eastwood has reached the stage of life when he can sit down at the piano and doodle jazzy riffs whenever he feels like it. Without fear of failure or banishment, he can direct fair-to-middling movies from crappy bestsellers like The Bridges of Madison County. He can exercise the broadest powers of Hollywood stardom--like singing on a soundtrack or, despite the fact that tough guys like Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name remain the most memorable items on his resume, hiring a real-life Georgia drag queen to play herself and steal a couple of scenes in his new picture. He can install his daughter Alison in a small but choice part. Eastwood's got control. He's virtually bulletproof. He doesn't have to feel lucky, because he's the man talking softly and carrying the biggest stick.

Case in point: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. For two and a half hours, producer-director Clint Eastwood wanders around the moss-draped town squares, dark cemeteries and seedy nightclubs of quirky old Savannah, Georgia, reheating a cast of characters that have been living on the New York Times bestseller list for more than three years. As with Madison County, he does an adequate job. It's another Eastwood movie that goes in one eye and out the other, but a huge audience is virtually guaranteed.

In case you've been living on Mars (or reading at a higher level), John Berendt's "nonfiction novel" of the same name is one of those mass-market phenomena that don't have readers--they have disciples. More than two million of them have found themselves intrigued by Berendt's Yankee's-eye-view of decadence and deception in Old Savannah. To hear him tell it, it's an easy-living, hard-drinking place where a rumpled voodoo queen sits cackling on every park bench, an eccentric inventor with a bottle of deadly poison in his pocket keeps a menagerie of buzzing horseflies attached to his suit with seamstress thread, and a disbarred lawyer squats in a succession of local mansions, throwing week-long parties.

It's a book of vignettes and tangents and lurid local colors (of which the Lady Chablis, the wisecracking black drag queen, is the most vivid), loosely bound together by a not-very-interesting murder case in which a suave antique dealer shoots dead the explosive redneck street hustler who's been his gay lover. The most noticeable result of Berendt's efforts is that Savannah has apparently been reduced to a tourist trap with a thriving cottage industry in Midnight souvenirs.

Dutifully, grindingly, Eastwood and screenwriter John Lee Hancock reproduce the details of this neo-Gothic soap opera, with special attention to the fey and charming antique man, Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), and even more attention to a retooled version of the author/narrator himself. He's now called "John Kelso" and is played by John Cusack. "It's like 'Gone With the Wind' on mescaline," this wide-eyed visitor from New York says of Savannah--a line you won't find in the book. Well, fine. If, like Berendt before them, Eastwood, Spacey and Cusack want to turn Savannah into the capital of Southern Grotesque, let 'em have at it. But neither book nor movie features the most reliable narrative in the world, and there remains something vaguely irritating about a nosy reporter from the North who thinks he's single-handedly discovered the beguilements of Dixie and the Southern taste for secrets--when in truth every native from Faulkner to Flannery O'Connor to Bobbie Ann Mason has already preceded him into that Garden and done a better job of describing it.

Oh, well. Absent The Sound and the Fury, we're stuck with Eastwood's tepid Midnight--part gossip column, part travelogue, part cheap thrill. In the interests of Hollywood concision, Jim Williams's four murder trials have been fused into one incredibly dull one, his famous string of elegant Christmas parties reduced to a single evening. Writer Berendt's most interesting character--Savannah itself--doesn't even get the kind of face time with Eastwood and cinematographer Jack N. Green you might have expected, and the works of Johnny Mercer--Savannah's most celebrated son--are not all that evident. Unfortu-nately, Berendt/Kelso/Cusack is usually front and center, a miscalculation that defies all logic. Are we really supposed to find the scribbler from New York more interesting than the gun-toting, bourbon-swilling, self-deceiving citizens of Savannah? Apparently so. In this version, he even gets the girl, the steamy Southern belle Mandy, portrayed by the aforementioned Alison Eastwood.

Alas, the twentieth film directed by Clint Eastwood just isn't very dramatic or funny or memorable. The Australian actor Jack Thompson, of all people, has a couple of nice turns as Williams's Georgia born-and-bred defense attorney, Sonny Seiler, and Savannah's own Chablis, who clearly had a ball with wardrobe, gets off her share of bons mots and acting out. As the voodoo priestess Minerva, hired to put a spell on the judge and the DA, Irma P. Hall cackles colorfully and rattles her bones and amulets to nice effect. In the end, that's all she comes to--a nice effect.

Even a book so slender--despite its fans, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is more style than substance--deserves to have its spirit reproduced on film. Eastwood, despite dogged efforts, gets at neither the graveyard humor nor the blithe disregard for fact that characterizes the fallen Southern aristocracy, and he skims over the remaining social classes of Savannah like a dragonfly. What we needed here, and what the Berendt original always hints at, is an appreciation of both the heart of darkness and the heart of mirth. On both counts, the movie comes up empty.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Screenplay by John Lee Hancock, from a book by John Berendt. Produced and directed by Clint Eastwood. With Kevin Spacey, John Cusack, Jack Thompson, Alison Eastwood and the Lady Chablis.

 
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