CREDITS: Director: Clint Eastwood Cast: Kevin Spacey, John Cusack, The Lady Chablis, Alison Eastwood, Jude Law USA 1997 (15) 

INTRODUCTION: John Berendt best selling true story from Savannah makes its long awaited transition to the silver screen thanks to the director with no name, namely Clint Eastwood. The factual basis for the film is underplayed, not so much as a "this film is based on a true story" in the opening credits, which is hardly surprising when you consider how far fetched it all is. 

SYNOPSIS: The film details the arrival of a young reporter John Kelso (John Cusack) who arrives in Savannah to cover the social event of the year a Christmas party hosted by antiques dealer Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). The party ends with Jim shooting his gay lover Billy Hanson (Jude Law). Facing a murder trial Jim enlists Johns help and the resulting investigation leads John into contact with the eccentric residents of Savannah, including Joe a disbarred lawyer who throws parties in other peoples houses while there away, Chablis the night club hostess with a secret, Luthor the sociopathic inventor of fly paper, a Voodoo Priestess and Patrick the Invisible Dog. As he continues his investigation he discovers more than he expected and has his burgeoning friendship with Jim tested to the limits. 

REVIEW: As with any conversion to screen the novel is altered greatly to create a more concise narrative, Luthor is made foreman of the jury, Chablis becomes a defence witness, the number of trials are reduced from three to one, and a completely unnecessary love interest (in the delectable shape of Clints Daughter Sarah Eastwood) is crowbared in. Plot apart, and that really is the least important part of this film, the movie remains reasonably faithful to the spirit book and indeed the true story behind it. A couple of the characters (Chablis & Emma) even get to play themselves. 

Despite the changes to the story the film still lacks the kind of solid narrative that is necessary for your traditional Grisholmesque court-room thriller. Where it does succeed however is in the well rendered portrayal of the many colourful characters that inhabit this particular corner of small town America. 
Spacey (L.A. Confidential) & Cusack (Grosse Point Blank) are two of my favourite actor and the chance to see them play off each other is a rare treat. Both excel Spacey as the charming Williams and Cusack as the outsider Kelso. But it is The Lady Chablis who steals the show, I can think of no one other than the Lady herself who could pull off the role and obviously neither could Clint. A brave but ultimate successful decision, the Lady is perhaps a little too much freedom becoming the focus of the film at the cost of the stars. Less inspired is Clints decision to cast his daughter as romantic interest Mandy Nichols but fortunately Allison Eastwood manages to put in a good enough performance to dispel accusations of nepotism. An array of familiar character actors turn up in minor roles and do an excellent job of portraying the unusual inhabitants of Savannah. 

The performances are essential in a film that relies on its cast, this film is, after all, little more than the modern day equivalent of the freak show, not that this is a bad thing, there seems to be something deep in human nature, including myself, that revels in the perusal of freaks of all kinds. Perhaps it is a part of what Foucault called the "sacred inclusion of the other" as a way of defining our "episteme" by defining what lay outside it, or perhaps it is a way of coming to terms with something in our selves by viewing it in an greatly exaggerated form in someone else, what Jim Rose sums up with his famous quote "Freak like me". Whatever it is it allows character studies like this to succeed both commercially and critically, and given a wide enough release and good word of mouth I have no doubt that this film will do reasonably well despite lacking the sort of elements that make for a popular film, i.e. a story. 

The story does however have your traditional happy ending, with Cusack and his new family unit (wife, dog and drag queen) settling down in Savannah to live happily ever after. The Capraesque elements seem at odds with the Lynchian characters but some how it works, invoking traditional Hollywood romantic comedies in a very 90s setting. Kelso describes it as "Gone With The Wind on Mescaline" but perhaps a more apt description would be "Twin Peaks on a 3 step recovery program". 

If character studies appeal to you go see this film, if they dont give it a chance anyway. 

Mutts Rating: ****

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