When a movie is as droolingly awaited as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Clint Eastwood's film of John Berendt's staggeringly popular Southern gothic true-crime novel, the anticipation carries with it a special expectation: Those who loved the book don't simply want to see a version of it on screen they want to see the version, to see the book itself dance to life. Midnight in the Garden, like Ragtime and The Executioner's Song, is one of those rare tales that summon the excitement of a great movie right on the page. Set in mossy, sun-dazed Savannah during the mid-'80s, a world poised between the Old South and the New, and stocked with enough oddity and scandal to fill a month's worth of National Enquirers, the book is as overflowing as a Robert Altman ensemble piece, but with a pungent psychosexual hook.
The central figure, Jim Williams, a wealthy middle-aged antiques dealer of consummate charm and taste, kills his male lover, a reckless 20-year-old street hustler, and claims that it was self-defense. Williams is an old-money poseur, with fake airs that spell lineage. He parades himself as a bachelor, and the book's power derives, in part, from the way that his status he's a gay man in the closet, sleeping with a hot young stud appears all the more exotic because of its clash against the tradition-laden backdrop of the aristocratic South. The drama hinges on a kind of aestheticized nostalgia for an era when homosexuality was taboo. On the one hand, Williams' lifestyle is accepted (with a raised eyebrow); on the other, his sexuality depends on its invisibility on being regarded as another local ''eccentricity.'' Thus, the scandal of the shooting isn't simply that it may have been murder. (Murder in Savannah, we're told, is often swept under the rug.) It's that the legal imbroglio threatens to drag Williams' gayness out of the closet, and with it the delicate fabric of the town's social hypocrisy.
Kevin Spacey, loquacious and bourbon smooth, with a clipped mustache and black eyes that twinkle below immaculate graying hair, makes Williams a charismatic dandy, but he also holds a glimmer of mystery in reserve. As he faces off against John Kelso (John Cusack), a young journalist who has arrived to do a piece on his Christmas party, the older man's playful power stare is really a challenge, a way of asserting his trustfulness and warning that it goes only so far.
As enjoyable as Spacey's performance is, though, it's just about the only thing in Midnight in the Garden that has much life. Cusack's Kelso is a naggingly passive protagonist he's there as an ''investigator,'' but mostly as an observer. There are a few sparky encounters (the dolled-up matrons at Williams' party joking about their suicidal husbands), but the film feels slack, sterile, and wanly populated. The whole Savannah atmosphere, the sense of the city as a menagerie of ''characters,'' is underdone. A mean old coot walks around with horseflies on a leash, and there's the wiggly black transsexual Lady Chablis (played by the real Lady Chablis), who hits narcissistic new highs in the am-I-Miss-Thing-or-what? sweepstakes. Yet the disparate weirdos never quite add up to a community. And without it, there's no sense of Williams' violent action as a looming social blasphemy. Berendt's Dixie crazy quilt has been re-stitched into a not very twisty courtroom drama tattered with portentous gloom.
Eastwood directs in his leisurely, neo-classical style, but I regret to say that it's beginning to feel like an old man's style. You're grateful for the more robust performers, like the wily Jack Thompson, who plays Williams' lawyer with tough gusto, chewing on his Georgia accent like a hunk of beef jerky. The Lady Chablis is, if nothing else, a canny scene-stealer. Her smirky lips point downward like a divining rod, so that even when she's called as a courtroom witness, in a scene that threatens to turn the movie into My Cousin Vinita, she holds you. That's more than you can say for Mandy (Alison Eastwood), a yuppie Southern belle who becomes Kelso's generic love interest when he's not gawking at the locals. By the time Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is over, it may send more than a few viewers scurrying off to the bookstore. They'll surely want to see what all the fuss was about. C+