Crazy in Alabama
Screenplay : Mark Childress (based on his novel)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : : Melanie Griffith (Lucille), David Morse (Dove), Lucas Black (Peejoe), Cathy Moriarty (Earlene), Meat Loaf Aday (Sheriff John Doggett), Rod Steiger (Judge Mead), Richard Schiff (Norman), John Beasley (Nehemiah), Robert Wagner (Harry Hall)
"Crazy in Alabama" is composed of two distinctly different narratives that run parallel to each other throughout the film, until at the end they are tenuously linked by the theme of "freedom." Either one of these narratives could possibly constitute its own movie. But, for better or worse, "Crazy in Alabama" insists on using both of them and trying to show us how they connect. The fact that the connection is not made clear until a character informs us in his voice-over narration in the last two minutes of the film is a good sign that they don't have much to do with each other. But, give first-time director Antonio Banderas credit for trying.
The film takes place in the South in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights movement. One narrative strand follows the wild antics of Aunt Lucille (Melanie Griffith), a rather insane woman in her mid-thirties who gets her long-delayed taste of freedom when she poisons her abusive husband, Chester, and takes off for Hollywood. One of the movie's bizarre touches (there are many others) is the fact that, just to make sure he's dead, Lucille decapitates Chester and, to make sure he knows what she's capable of, carries his head around with her in a hat box. And, if that weren't weird enough, the soundtrack allows us to hear Chester's disembodied head talking to Lucille from time to time (not that he ever has much of interest to say).
The other narrative concerns Lucille's precocious 13-year-old nephew, Peejoe (Lucas Black). Peejoe lives in a small Alabama town with his uncle Dove (David Morse), after having to move out of his house because his grandmother was left with California-bound Lucille's seven children. Peejoe becomes involves in a local Civil Rights battle when he witnesses the town's racist, red-neck sheriff, John Doggett (Meat Loaf Aday), "accidentally" kill a young black man who was protesting an all-white public pool.
Based on the novel by Mark Childress (who also wrote the screenplay), "Crazy in Alabama" is something like "Thelma and Louise" meets "In the Heat of the Night" (the fact that Rod Steiger, the original red-neck sheriff from the latter film, makes a long cameo as a judge only reinforces the connection). Part comedy, part drama, with ample religious symbolism and some distracting camera trickery (Banderas apparently learned a few moves from his "Desperado" director Robert Rodriguez), "Crazy in Alabama" is all over the map. It never achieves a consistent tone, even within its discrete narratives. The Lucille saga veers wildly from camp comedy to outlaw crime saga , and still manages to end with a teary-eyed court sequence about the pains of spousal abuse.
As a director, Banderas is obviously out to prove something. He must have seen "Crazy in Alabama" as a real challenge--any director who could balance this seriocomic juggling act would rank in the forefront on American filmmakers (the fact that it had a juicy feature role custom-built for Griffith, a.k.a. Mrs. Antonio Banderas, probably didn't hurt, either). But, as it turns out, the task was too much for him.
Individual moments shine, especially a well-choreographed sequence where a bunch of townspeople and overeager policemen savagely break up a group of African Americans protesting at the public pool where the young man was killed. Banderas shows skill and adeptness at capturing the senseless brutality of the moment, but he slips into overkill when he starts switching to black and white, interspersing still photographs, and concentrating his camera lens on a young black boy floating Christ-like in the pool.
Banderas also shows a weakness for directing actors. Griffith is her usual charming, slightly ditzy self in the eccentric lead role, but she never makes Lucille into the truly memorable character she deserves to be. Everyone in the film is immediately enamoured with her, but she never makes the case for why this would be. David Morse is unfortunately bland as Dove, and Lucas Black essentially does the same aw-shucks, good-hearted Southern riff he used to great effect as a younger boy in "Sling Blade" (1996). As Sheriff Doggett, Meat Loaf is fat, sweaty, and racist, and his one-note, spite-filled snarl only emphasizes how good was Rod Steiger's performance as Police Chief Bill Gillespie in 1967's "In the Heat of the Night."
What could have made "Crazy in Alabama" better? I'm not sure, but I have the feeling that the movie sputters not only because it divides itself between two competing narratives that are never fully explored, but also because it doesn't quite live up to its own title. "Crazy in Alabama" is crazy, sure, but not memorably so. You can constantly feel Banderas pulling back at the last minute, and it gives the movie a wobbly, unsure-of-itself feeling. Perhaps, in the end, it just isn't quite crazy enough.
©1999 James Kendrick