Southern Discomfort

SENT TO SAVANNAH, GA., TO COVER an elegant, black-tie Christmas party for Town and Country, New York writer John Kelso (John Cusack) finds himself knee deep in Southern eccentrics--and embroiled in a murder case. To the horror of Savannah society, the party's ""bachelor'' host, Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), is arrested for shooting his hustler lover (Jude Law). On the phone to a friend back home, the discombobulated journalist describes his Savannah experience: ""It's like "Gone With the Wind' on mescaline.''

If only one could say that about Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The fans who have kept John Berendt's nonfiction tale on the best-seller list for more than three years may come away feeling they've seen ""Perry Mason'' on Valium. Eastwood and screenwriter John Lee Hancock faced a knotty problem of adaptation: what's beguiling about the book isn't the unsatisfying murder-mystery plot but the supremely odd cast of characters, the drenched-in-decadence atmosphere, the evocation of a community blissfully insulated from the mundane. Perhaps this could have been captured in a leisurely mini-series (the PBS ""Tales of the City'' offers a model). Eastwood's strangely lackluster 2-hour, 35-minute version feels both too long for a tensionless courtroom drama and too short to do justice to its characters.

Much of the casting, however, is dead on. Kevin Spacey's creepy, deadeyed gentility fits the nouveau riche antiques dealer Williams like a velvet glove; Jack Thompson seems born to play the heartily charming attorney Sonny Seiler, and Cusack has the right mix of irony and intelligence to play the authorial stand-in (who has been given a lame, unnecessary romantic involvement with Alison Eastwood's colorless Mandy). One of the true treats is getting to see The Lady Chablis play her transvestite self: her salty drag-queen energy is an always-welcome distraction. Chablis gets to shine in the movie's one surefire scene, when she leeringly misbehaves at a black debutante ball. Irma T. Hall's voodoo priestess Minerva fares less well: Eastwood's depictions of her occult cemetery rituals are hopelessly stagy.

The one crucial miscasting is Eastwood as director. He approaches the story like a tourist. He seems to think that by using real locations and casting Savannah socialites as extras that he's captured the soul of the book. What he's missed is that Berendt's ""nonfiction'' reads like fantasy and requires a more baroque visual style--that touch of mescaline--to transport us into this alternate reality. Anyone who hasn't read Berendt's book first may be hard pressed to understand its long-lived allure.