Review: 'Crazy in Alabama' is two films in one
October 21, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Clinton
(CNN) -- On the surface, a story focusing on the American racial civil-rights struggle in the 1960s may seem an odd choice for a Málaga-born Spanish actor like Antonio Banderas. Especially as his first directing project.
But for a man who grew up under the dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, personal and political freedom are subjects close to the heart.
Banderas' wife, Melanie Griffith, stars in "Crazy in Alabama" as the beautiful but eccentric Lucille. She leaves her abusive husband -- most of him -- behind. She drops her seven kids off at her mother's Alabama farm. She heads for fame, freedom and fortune in Hollywood.
Her main piece of luggage is a hatbox in which she's placed a Tupperware bowl containing her late hubby's severed head. Her cross-country odyssey is Plot No. 1.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, we have Plot No. 2. Lucille's nephew Peejoe -- played with great authority by 16-year-old Lucas Black ("Sling Blade," 1996) -- is left to struggle along with Lucille's brother, Uncle Dove (David Morse). The violence is explosive as the civil-rights movement engulfs their tiny Alabama community.
Musican-turned-actor Meat Loaf (Marvin Lee Aday) plays Sheriff John Doggett, a product of his place and time: an outrageous bigot. After Doggett kills a black boy who was protesting at the town's whites-only swimming pool, Peejoe -- who witnessed the murder -- is forced to take a stand.
The town is divided. Tensions reach a fever pitch. Against this backdrop, the two plots converge when Lucille is hauled back in chains after being arrested for murder in California. Her downfall? She was spotted playing a bit role on the TV series "Bewitched."
Doggett offers Peejoe a choice: his aunt's life in exchange for his silence about the black boy's murder. Peejoe's reaction drives the film to its surprising conclusion.
Two strong stars, two battling plots
"Crazy in Alabama" is based on a 1993 novel of the same title by Mark Childress, who also wrote the screenplay. Griffith optioned the material and brought it to Banderas, who does a respectable job with this dual story line in his directorial debut. He has strong visual awareness, a good feel for pacing and impeccable casting.
Morse can be seen in December in "The Green Mile" -- a film starring Tom Hanks and generating intense Oscar buzz. Here, he's done a wonderful job with the role of Dove, a man who reluctantly wakes up to the world around him, doesn't like what he sees but is hesitant to take action.
Cathy Moriarty plays Dove's wife Earlene, who represents the status quo. She doesn't consider herself to be necessarily prejudiced. She just wants everything to be the way she remembers it being -- that time frequently described by such people as "when everyone knew their place."
Rod Steiger delivers a well-crafted performance as a judge in the film's final courtroom scenes. Robert Wagner and Elizabeth Perkins play small roles in Lucille's dream trip to Hollywood.
But the film belongs to Griffith and Black. Both give heartfelt performances that draw you into the world their characters inhabit.
The deadly serious Alabama plot line of "Crazy in Alabama" is much more interesting than Griffith's wacky, comic cross-country trip. These dueling stories result in a film that's oddly uneven and unlikely to generate big box-office numbers.
"Crazy in Alabama" opens nationwide on Friday and is rated PG-13 with a running time of 104 minutes.
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