By Doug Levy
Arizona Daily Wildcat
November 20, 1997

This garden is no bed of roses


Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.
Arizona Daily Wildcat

That's not a knife. This is a knife: John Kelso (John Cusack) and Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey) star in "Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil."

I don't know what I was thinking.

Just after I got through saying the other week how courtroom dramas should be avoided at all costs, I found myself sitting in a theater watching "Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil". Not just a courtroom drama, either. A really bad courtroom drama.

Actually, I do know what I was thinking. I was thinking, hey, it's got Kevin Spacey and (the great) John Cusack in it. How bad could it be? Very poor logic, that is.

See, this movie is based on a best-selling novel of the same name by author John Berendt. The novel, in turn, is based on a true story. By the time we reach the screen, we're quite a few "based-ons" away from reality. So, just because the people represented in the film might have had full personalities and rounded out characters in real life, as most real people do, on screen they are nothing more than caricatures. Often stereotypes.

Like Minerva, the voodoo priestess played by Irma P. Hall, who appears out of the shadows, spouts cryptic riddles, tells the future, cackles and drinks liquor from the bottle.

Or The Lady Chablis, a pre-op transsexual performer, who runs around causing scenes everywhere he/she goes, queening it up exactly as you would expect. The fact that the character is portrayed by the real Lady Chablis does not make it believable. It just makes it unbelievable that she would allow herself to be so shallowly represented.

There's the southern lawyer, the gay prostitute, the inquisitive reporter, the bumbling cop, the wild love interest and the wacky omnipresent party guy.

Even Spacey and Cusack, as the rich-man-on-trial and reporter respectively, can't salvage their flat roles. Although they try, it's like giving someone a box of crayons and a pad, and telling them to recreate a Van Gogh: there just isn't enough to work with.

Spacey's appallingly fake mustache isn't even believable.

Sure, it's based on real events and real people, but consider this - Cusack's character, John Kelso, surely meant to represent Berendt in some way, is the only admittedly "fictional" character in the story. Yet Kelso is at the center of the film. He even plays a major role in the case of the defense at the trial. If he doesn't even exist, the true story can't be anything even close to what we see here. It's that "based on" thing again.

Many of the characters only come onto the scene in the first place because of their interaction with Kelso. These include Mandy Nichols, played by Alison Eastwood, who just happens to be the daughter of Clint Eastwood, who, in turn, just happened to have directed the movie (Can you say Tori Spelling?). Her part, like many others, is almost gratuitous, and the fact that we're supposed to believe that what takes place between her and Kelso is enough to justify "love" is downright insulting.

There's more gratuitous elements, too: entire scenes that do nothing to advance the plot, and are just there to give the actors a place to show off (this means you, Chablis). When this is the reason that a film clocks in at over two and a half hours, it's just plain inexcusable.

Finally, here's a clue that the problems may even go as far back as the book by Berendt: "He took a story with a multitude of characters and streamlined and condensed it," says Kevin Spacey. That's exactly what Reader's Digest does when they "condense" great works of literature for the people who aren't up to the task of reading them.

So, I give you a movie for those who can't handle literature, and the things it brings with it, such as depth, characterization and a believable plot; I give you Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil.



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