It is a shame that the film adaptation of John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” was not helmed by a director who thrives in the radically offbeat. In the hands of someone like David Lynch, Tim Burton or even John Waters, the extraordinary wealth of eccentricity, depravity and old-fashioned freakiness would have flowered brilliantly.
Alas, the project wound up in Clint Eastwood’s stolid hands. “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” betrays all of the problems inherent to the Eastwood canon – an overlong running time, a fussy music score, miscasting, a heavy sense of artistic pretension.
The problems with the film begin immediately with the reinvention of the bemused Berendt narrator in the book into the dim on-screen persona of “John Kelso,” played with utter cluelessness by John Cusack. Having the bland Kelso at the center of a zany Savannah story throws the project off balance – imagine a Marx Brothers movie centered around Zeppo and you’ll have an idea how this film flows. Eastwood doesn’t help matters by creating a new character named “Mandy” who falls in love with Kelso – nor is it in the viewer’s best interest that this lady is played by the young Alison Eastwood. (Guess how she got her job?)
The larger-than-life characters that made Berendt’s book so memorable are given smaller-than-life incarnations. Kevin Spacey’s gay millionaire and Jude Law’s rough-trade hustler come across like Acting 101 exercises, while Irma P. Hall’s voodoo priestess is too benign for impact. Most curious is the transvestite cabaret performer Lady Chablis playing himself/herself. The poor Lady cannot act, and the sassy insouciance described by Berendt is nowhere to be found on-screen.
In Eastwood’s best films, the blur between good and evil creates memorably deep emotional imbalance. And the joy of the Berendt book was the careful peeling back of the multiple layers of Savannah society to discover how money and hubris fogged up all notions of morality and justice.
In this film, however, good and evil are both trumped by ennui. When Kelso calls his agent and describes his dreary surroundings as “‘Gone with the Wind’ on mescaline,” it is not hard to wonder which film he is watching. Under Eastwood’s guidance, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” seems like alchemy in reverse – a golden property is turned into lead.