Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

In Savannah, the lunatics don't wait for the moon to come out. They carry on night and day, partying, drinking, casting voodoo spells and walking invisible dogs. Or so it seems from the portrait of Savannah painted by director Clint Eastwood in *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil*. Based on John Berendt's best-selling book, the main plot of *Midnight* concerns the true crime story of antiques dealer Jim Williams, a wealthy, flamboyant smoothie who murdered his lover, a young hustler. But plots aside, and the plot is mostly an aside in this film, *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil* celebrates the colorful characters of Savannah -- Jim Williams included -- in a series of vignettes that highlight the high life of the eccentric Southern town.

John Kelso (John Cusack) arrives in the cypress draped town to write a magazine article about Williams' notorious annual Christmas party at Mercer House, former home of Savannah's own Johnny Mercer. A New Yorker, Kelso (a creation of the movie, and not a character in the book) mostly stares, stupefied, at the quirky antics of Savannah's drunken, heavily armed citizenry as they chatter, guzzle punch and produce small pistols from their party gowns. But when the party's over, Williams (Kevin Spacey) has shot and killed Billy Hanson (Jude Law), claiming self defense. (Savannah parties so relentlessly, even the crime scenes are catered.)

The murder supplies Kelso with an excuse to poke around town. It doesn't take much poking to turn up something weird and wonderful, and for the rest of the film, Kelso acts as an ersatz guide on a tour that includes layabouts and lounge singers, a toothless voodoo priestess (Irma P. Hall) communing with the dead Billy Hanson and a show stopping performance by drag queen The Lady Chablis (playing himself).

A breezy but sprawling and messy film, *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil* is enjoyable as a fanciful portrait of Savannah, but as courtroom drama or murder mystery, it's pretty lightweight. When it comes out that Williams is gay, he is excoriated by the town that once coveted his favor, a fact that is neither played up nor down, in particular. Ably defended by his sharp, good ol' boy lawyer Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson), and junior detective Kelso, Williams stands trial, but the trial itself, aside from the presence of Williams' cat Shelton as a defense witness, is mostly boilerplate stuff, neither especially exciting nor surprising. Likewise Williams' moral slipperiness -- he tells different versions of his story to suit changing circumstances. This disturbs Kelso's moral compass, but is otherwise not very compelling because Williams is always more sympathetic and likable than his trashy, menacing victim. All of which makes for surprisingly little drama in a potentially highly dramatic story. *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil*, scripted by John Lee Hancock, is a stone soup of a movie -- little supbplots are thrown into the pot as they are found, but there's no particular recipe, and neither the plot nor the soup ever thickens. The murder story seems almost an afterthought, a little salt thrown in at the very last.

Most of the performances are highly mannered in *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil*. When someone as outrageous as The Lady Chablis (think RuPaul without inhibitions) is in the house, everyone else is practically forced to ham it up, and ham it up they do. Spacey's Williams is an astute combination of languor and alertness, a sleeping cat ready to spring into action. Cusack's role is largely reactive -- he's a wide-eyed innocent trying to make sense of a freak show. The rest of the cast includes a lot of actors low profile enough and talented enough to look and sound like authentic Savannahians. This adds immeasurably to the fun of *Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil*. Take away the boilerplate courtroom plot and what's left is something like an Errol Morris documentary -- a potboiler set in a strange, colorful little Southern town whose most famous citizen used to be a bulldog named Uga.