movie review by
Elizabeth Abele


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Crazy in Alabama
Stars who become directors often have the ability to use their contacts to bring together very talented people for their maiden effort. A major problem with Antonio Banderas’ Crazy in Alabama may actually be its embarrassment of riches.

Part of this overabundance actually comes from its source—Mark Childress’ novel that he has adapted for the screen. In the novel, the story follows two highly divergent plots. After murdering her husband and abandoning her seven children, Lucille (Melanie Griffith) makes a fairy-tale journey to Hollywood to become a star—and lo and behold, everything goes her way, from hitting it big in Vegas to finding a trustworthy agent/talent scout (Robert Wagner) at the end of her rainbow. Accompanying Lucille on her journey is her husband’s severed head, that she carries everywhere in a couture hatbox.

Back home in Alabama, her orphan nephew, Peejoe (Lucas Black), leaves the sanctuary of the farm to live with undertaker Uncle Dove (David Morse). As naively innocent as his Aunt Lucille, Peejoe finds himself at the center of the town’s civil rights protest. The film tries to bring both of these stories together as "fights for freedom." However, they belong to such different moral, narrative, and cinematic universes that even the conventions of Southern gothic can’t coherently yoke them together.

Lucille’s story takes centerstage from the opening sequence forward. Griffith is given a wonderful role that allows her to be funny, tender, sexy, haunted, innocent, dangerous, and loyal—and she successfully navigates Lucille’s complexities. Lucille’s unswerving confidence in herself and her dream sweeps all her logical inconsistencies aside, a character who demands to be accepted on her own terms. The art direction of her scenes is wonderful, recalling the vibrant, Technicolor palate of the '60s.

An especially enchanting sequence is when Lucille films her guest role on Bewitched, with stand-ins for Darren and Samantha, and she effortlessly shines as a ‘60s TV sex-kitten. Equally inventive is when the ghost of Lucille’s abusive husband possesses the haughty starlet played by Elizabeth Perkins. This surreal, anything-is-possible universe contrasts sharply with the universe inhabited by Peejoe and Dove.

The subtle colors and moments of the Alabama scenes feel flat compared to Lucille’s cross-country adventures; however, the conflicts in the Alabama town are truly life and death. Peejoe finds himself literally face-to-face with a civil rights protest, when a black teenager, Taylor Jackson, takes a plunge into the public pool, and Peejoe is the only white who remains in the water with him. Peejoe is later the sole witness to Taylor’s death, when he is brutally yanked from the top of a fence by the local sheriff (Meat Loaf Aday). The murdered youth is the son of the town’s black undertaker, Nehemiah Jackson (John Beasley), a long time associate of Uncle Dove.

Nehemiah turns his grief into a poetic protest, as the black funeral processional wades together into the pool. When the community baptism is disrupted by arrests and beatings, Peejoe’s picture lands on the cover of Life. Peejoe becomes a poster boy for civil rights, without coming to any deep understanding of the history of hatred and injustice that he is opposing—much like another open-minded Alabama film character, Forrest Gump. David Morse’s Uncle Dove has a better understanding of the odds that he and his nephew face of affecting any real change and the cost of any attempt. Dove is the film’s quiet foundation, in his unswerving support of "Little Sister" and his efforts to navigate his family through a challenging summer.

The divergent worlds of this film collide at Lucille’s Alabama trial, presided over by Judge Mead (Rod Steiger). Nehemiah and Lucille are placed in adjoining cells, where they comfort each other with their common experience of "being held down." But Lucille, the murderer, is shown as more in need of comfort than the grieving father—who responded to the injustice his family faced through civil disobedience, instead of rat poison and dismemberment.

The logic of the film continues to unravel in the courtroom. Lucille refuses an insanity plea, to argue self-defense. But in her closing speak, she makes it unclear whether she killed her husband because he abused her and her children—or for his lesser sins of selfish neglect. The incoherence of her defense highlights the incongruity between pardoning a premeditated (though perhaps justified) murder while righteously condemning an accidental (though vicious) murder. By campaigning for us to love Lucille, the film undermines our ability to fully condemn Sheriff Mead.

The film is blessed with fine performances, from David Morse’s quiet strength, to John Beasley’s dignified grief. The many cameos are charming, though surprisingly West Wing’s Richard Schiff is the most memorable as Lucille’s adoring limousine driver. vThis material and cast could have made two good movies. Unfortunately, crammed in this one package, it’s just a little too crazy, torn between two conflicting definitions of justice.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]