Rated R - Running time: 2:35 - Released 11/21/97

In the world of high-society where one's reputation is one's most valuable asset, going to jail may be preferable to having the truth come to light. This theme is illustrated abundantly in John Lee Hancock's rewrite of John Berendt's best-selling book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In the genteel southern town of Savannah, Georgia, a wealthy bachelor named Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey) runs the risk of losing much more than his freedom if the crowd turns against him.

This story starts when John Kelso (John Cusack), a New York writer, is commissioned to do a short piece for the society page about a party held at Jim's sprawling estate. The tycoon warmly welcomes John and introduces him to several important people. The inebriated conversations among wealthy women about their husbands having committed suicide strikes John as strange, but when they start brandishing loaded weapons and joking about their aspirations to "kill a man," he is downright intrigued.

When the party's over, the police are called: sure enough, there is a man dead on the Persian rug, and Jim appears to be the killer. While partygoers continue to pass out hors d'oeuvres on the street, the police question the host. John sees that he has a much bigger story on his hands than the society piece. "These people are all heavily armed and drunk," he phones to a friend back home. "New York is boring; I'm staying here for a while." In fact, he's inspired to write a book about the charming but dark atmosphere of deep south soceity.

The ensuing murder trial reveals aspects of Jim's lifestyle and his relationship with the victim (Billy Hanson, played by Jude Law) that he thinks are much more damaging than the fact that he killed the man. And with his new friend scribbling notes every few minutes, he is even more on edge. But the two strike up a deal with the aid of Jim's lawyer, Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson), and John is allowed to be privy to all information in the case in return for letting them see what he's writing.

The likelihood of an attorney allowing a novelist to eavesdrop on confidential conversations regarding a murder trial is highly questionable, especially in a close-knit southern town when the writer is a New York yankee. And since John's participation has a major bearing on the case, some might say the whole story falls apart because of that. But if this unlikelihood is allowed, the rest of the story seems plausible and very well executed by the cast and by director Clint Eastwood, usually known for high-intensity action pictures. Spacey is suave and subtle, eminently charming to all. And Cusack is visibly flabbergasted by all the things he sees and experiences in this multi-layered society.

A standout performance is given by The Lady Chablis, a drag queen apparently portraying herself. She has an irresistable charm and an arresting manner about her. She is called in as a star witness by John, because she knows intimate details about Billy and his relationship with Jim. Chablis really steals the show, and adds much needed humor, although not at her expense or that of anyone like her. Her humor is on her own terms, and her sex appeal is undeniable, a counterbalance to the homespun sensuality of Mandy (Alison Eastwood), the woman John meets and is attracted to.

Another interesting portrayal is that of Minerva (Irma P. Hall), a mysterious practicioner of the dark arts enlisted by Jim to help him deal with the spirit of the man dead at his hand. The cryptic philosophy/maniacal laughter bit is trite, but generally she is real and believable, a well-defined character among many in the multi-faceted cast.

There are moments when the story seems to lose momentum, but it never really drags. Eastwood has offered a good blend of humor and pathos, the mysterious underworld and the mundane machinations of society. ****

Copyright 1997 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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