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With: John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, Jack Thompson, Irma P. Hall, Jude Law, Alison Eastwood, Paul Hipp, The Lady Chablis, Dorothy Loudon, Anne Haney, Kim Hunter
Written by: John Lee Hancock, based on the book by John Berendt
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
MPAA Rating: R for language and brief violence
Running Time: 155
Date: 11/20/1997

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Savannah Smiles

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

First off, I haven't read the famous and beloved book by John Berendt that's been causing such a stir for the past 3 1/2 years. And secondly, I'm talking about a movie, not a book. I don't give a rip if the movie is "faithful" to the book. That's not what movies are about. There's no way a movie can recapture the interior monologue of a book without demeaning voiceovers, and there's no way a movie can recapture an entire book unless it's 14 hours long. I hate movies that are nothing but a giant "book-on-tape." If a movie is going to be based on a book, it better have a few ideas of its own.That aside, I think Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a great movie.

Eastwood has been on a roll for the past 10 years both as a filmmaker and as an actor. Since he works quietly, always with the same crew, and he's always on time and under budget, the Hollywood money people usually leave him alone, and there's nothing better for a healthy movie. Look at his string of recent movies: Bird, White Hunter, Black Heart, Unforgiven, A Perfect World and The Bridges of Madison County. Bigger directors like Scorsese and Spielberg should have such a run, but they attract too much studio attention. Eastwood is a very smart and lucky filmmaker.

For Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Eastwood enlisted the writer of A Perfect World, John Lee Hancock. A Perfect World was a beautiful, deliberately paced crime movie that played more like a John Ford movie than a typical 90's thriller. Hancock's screenplay for Midnight is also deliberately paced, and takes advantage of the exotic Savannah locale in the same manner as A Perfect World's cornfields and wide open spaces. But Midnight is a courtroom movie, and takes place mostly indoors, so Hancock and Eastwood are left to create beautiful rooms and likeable oddball characters. Strangely, we still get an idea of the mood of Savannah, and why so many readers have taken pilgrimages there.

Although based on a true story, Midnight has most of the courtroom movie mechanics in place, right down to the surprise witness and the tension-filled waiting room scene while the jury convenes. John Cusack plays the big city writer hired by rich Kevin Spacey to cover his annual Christmas party where Senators rub elbows with the town's elite. When Spacey has a spat with his gay lover (Jude Law) and shoots him, a trial ensues, and Cusack smells a book, so he stays.

Meanwhile, he gets involved with Allison Eastwood (the director's daughter), who is a fresh presence. She has a smile that could melt hearts, but she doesn't look like a model. She looks like someone you would see on the street in real life. He also meets and wins over The Lady Chablis, who is a bonus in this movie, not only because she is a radiant scene-stealer, but also because she is the real deal from the actual incident-- not something you get in every "based-on-a-true-story" movie (maybe an Oscar nomination is in order?). Spacey also gives an excellent performance, and Cusack is slowly becoming a great movie standard -- somewhere between Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart, an everyman with a hint of cool.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil opened the same weekend as Francis Ford Coppola's The Rainmaker, and I saw both within several days. They are both similar in their courtroom plots, but Midnight is probably the superior entertainment, due to its atmosphere, relaxed pace and involving characters. Congratulations to Clint for yet another successful picture.

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