"Crazy in Alabama"

Antonio Banderas directs his wife, Melanie Griffith, in this little morsel of easily digestible nostalgia.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 22, 1999 9:30AM (EDT)

Sometimes a man can direct a movie starring the woman he loves and everything turns out hunky-dory. The creative pairings of Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland, Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina, and Woody Allen and both Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow have resulted in memorable, mutually flattering movies. But often these connubial collaborations go horribly wrong, and before anybody has the sense to hit the brakes there's a wreck like John Derek's "Tarzan" or Blake Edwards' "S.O.B."

"Crazy in Alabama," the first film lensed by "Mask of Zorro" leading man Antonio Banderas, stars the director's bride, Melanie Griffith. Surprisingly, the movie is not a total fiasco. It's also not anything you might mistake for good, but this pleasant little morsel of easily digestible nostalgia is just as easy to take as any Markie Post movie on Lifetime or USA.

Based on Mark Childress' novel and adapted for the screen by the author, "Crazy in Alabama" juxtaposes the stories of a free-spirited, fun-loving murderess and her somber, socially conscious young nephew over a few tumultuous months in 1965. Despite the unusual premise, it's the kind of movie in which the narrator says things like, "And nothing would ever be the same."

To begin with, Aunt Lucille (Griffith) poisons and decapitates her no-good husband, ditches her brood of seven rug-rats and high-tails it to Hollywood. Her actions touch off an unexpected chain of events for her 13-year-old nephew, Peejoe (Lucas Black ). After being shuttled off to the home of his morose, funeral-directing Uncle Dove (David Morse), Peejoe finds himself in the midst of a potentially explosive civil rights controversy. In the end, the boy learns to choose which secrets to keep and which his conscience will force him to reveal.

The film's two story lines never quite interlock in a convincing way, even as they ultimately and inevitably merge into one. There's just something about the subjects of madcap eccentrics and horrifying racism that doesn't quite spell s-y-n-e-r-g-y. When taken separately, however, the two plots make a little more sense.

The tale of Peejoe's moral awakening is stronger of the two, in large part because it has the better cast. Newcomer Lucas Black has a deceptively laconic style that brings to mind River Phoenix in "Stand By Me." He doesn't actually do a whole lot except watch other characters with his steady, soul-stripping gaze. But Black makes the most of it: He reveals more with a squint and the tension of his shoulders than other cast members do with minutes of expository dialogue.

Morse, as Black's sad-sack mentor, and Meat Loaf Aday (the "Fight Club" star and aging rocker recently added a last name, no doubt to distinguish him from all those other performers out there named Meat Loaf), in the thanklessly one-dimensional role of the racist sheriff, both do well with what they've got, and turn in often unexpectedly subtle performances. (And whether intended or not, there is a certain satisfaction for the viewer in seeing "Rocky Horror" vet Mr. Loaf in a movie in which somebody else gets carved up with and stuck in a meat freezer.)

Banderas seems most comfortable directing these Peejoe segments, orchestrating some truly memorable set pieces that contrast the beauty of the South with the ugliness of hatred. He may be known for his swarthy good looks and sexy accent, but Banderas is also a guy who apprenticed for years in Spain as a regular in Pedro Almodsvar films. He clearly absorbed something from that master along the way. His warm, visually inviting style suits the sultry geographic milieu.

While Almodsvar has made a career out of telling the stories of colorful, sometimes downright dangerous women, Banderas looks a whole lot less confident whenever "Crazy" bounces over to Lucille and her zany, post-homicide pursuit of stardom. Some of the problem is the inherent weakness of the plot, and some of it is the fault of the Lucille character, whose whoop-de-doo antics would challenge just about any performer, let alone one who's really not cut out to play them.

Lucille is exactly the kind of part actresses love -- a wildly irresistible comic heroine who's also a battered woman. But while the chance to do both a tearful courtroom monologue and one of those windblown-and-freeeeee scenes standing up through the car's sunroof is probably too much for anybody to pass up, the role doesn't suit Griffith's rather limited range or change the fact that Lucille is both remarkably far-fetched and frankly unlikable.

Lucille shimmies around as a dark-headed beauty in shades and tight dresses, and gosh darn it, there's just something about her that makes everybody fall under her spell. Even her dead husband, or at least his Tupperwared noggin, can't leave her alone. But while everybody else in the movie trips with adoration for this wild, impetuous creature, Griffith is so unconvincing that the viewer is sitting in the audience thinking, "This is a so-so actress in a bad black wig."

Lucille eventually makes a walk-on appearance on the sitcom "Bewitched." The move does wonders for her popularity, but little for the movie's believability. While it's great that apparently in the '60s, a mother of seven who is well over age 30 could become the toast of Hollywood after one brief guest appearance on a TV show, it doesn't quite explain why everybody's so infatuated with a woman who cut off her husband's head and ran out on her kids.

Though one of the film's story lines is played for black comedy and the other is meant as a serious, coming-of-age saga, they both eventually wind up in the same place, neatly tied up in the grand, made-for-TV tradition. Despite Banderas' competent directing and some fine performances, "Crazy in Alabama" still disappoints with its simplistic, hollow narrative and characters. In the end, the would-be starlet seems curiously defanged, and that whole civil rights movement thing looks pretty much in the bag. Maybe that's why Lucille has such an affinity for "Bewitched" -- she lives in a world in which any problem, no matter how large, magically evaporates just by wishing it gone.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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