After a 26-year career of coming off like fingernails on a chalkboard, Melanie Griffith has finally begun to mature as an actress.
In 1996 she stood out from the otherwise sorry "Mullholland Falls" in an emotional role as a cheating cop's heartbroken wife. Early this year she was a revelation as an aging heroine addict and ironically motherly, career petty thief in "Another Day in Paradise." And now there's "Crazy In Alabama," an daffy, obliging murder farce set precariously against more serious undertones of 1960s racial strife.
Griffith was the perfect choice to star as Lucille, a dizzy, Southern, '60s sex bomb housewife, on the lam and headed for Hollywood after offing her abusive husband. Of course, the part was hers anyway, since this picture is the directorial debut of her husband, smoldering Spanish sex symbol Antonio Banderas.
Griffith jiggles like Jane Mansfield imitator on one-size-too-small high heels through a funny, sympathetic and slightly demented performance as she drops off her seven backwoods children with their white trash grandparents and hits the road in a stolen convertible with naive dreams of stardom and her late hubby's talking head (or is that her imagination?) in a hat box.
The story is narrated by her favorite nephew Peejoe (Lucas Black, "Sling Blade"), a cut-offs and dirty tank tops-clad lad who is central to a heavy-handed parallel story about a civil rights struggle in their Alabama hometown.
Director Banderas has unabashedly embraced and fused two of the easiest, most overused metaphors in the history of Hollywood -- daydreams of stardom and the 1960s Civil Rights movement -- and is a little clumsy in transitioning between the movie's two moods. But although "Alabama" is often uneven, he manages to marry these themes into a delightfully quirky, if predictable, fable.
The bulk of the film actually follows 12-year-old Peejoe, who gets involved in demonstrations against the local sheriff (played with surprisingly effective bigotry and ire by ex-rocker Meat Loaf) after witnessing him kill a black kid who took a dip in a "whites only" public pool.
The same sheriff has also vowed to see Aunt Lucille fry in the electric chair for her crime of frustration, so the pool incident was strike two from Peejoe's point of view.
Meanwhile, our 34-year-old starlet wannabe arrives in a kind of Gene Kelly vision of Hollywood, where an agent (Robert Wagner) is waiting with a walk-on part in "Bewitched." Hard to believe, I know, but this part of "Crazy In Alabama" has a devilish fairy tale air about it, so such trifles with literalism are easily disregard in the name of comedy. Especially since Griffith is at her funniest in these scenes. "Can I put my husband here?" she asks on the set, swinging her hat box around.
Banderas does a good job producing an unmistakably Southern atmosphere in his film, thanks in part to inherently Dixie-styled performances from Black, Griffith and David Morse ("Contact") as Peejoe's undertaker uncle (none-too-subtly named Dove) who tries to quell the storm rising in their town.
But he also makes his share of rookie mistakes, and he has zero sense of subtlety when he climbs on the Civil Rights soap box -- although the script (adapted by Mark Childress from his 1994 novel) is partially to blame for that.
One of his mistakes is the lurching transition into the semi-serious and sometimes sloppy last act -- Lucille's trial -- which takes place after she's caught trying to chuck her husband's noggin off the Golden Gate Bridge.
But this shaky and lengthy epilogue is kept afloat by the arrival of the cantankerous, eccentric, goofball judge, played with aplomb by the cantankerous, eccentric, goofball Rod Steiger.
Two other performances that help make the film's slight follies forgivable: Cathy Moriarty as Dove's hilariously over-the-top, "what will the neighbors think?" wife, and Elizabeth Perkins, in a catty cameo as an egomaniac movie star.
Sure, "Crazy In Alabama" is often obvious. Sure, it probably would have been more even and more astute in the hands of a more seasoned director. But as, say, a refreshing Saturday afternoon distraction, it more than satisfies.
Run time: 111 mins
In Theaters: Friday 22nd October 1999
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 30%
Fresh: 17 Rotten: 39
IMDB: 6.3 / 10
Director: Antonio Banderas
Starring: Melanie Griffith as Lucille Vinson, David Morse as Dove Bullis, Lucas Black as Peter Joseph 'Peejoe' Bullis, Cathy Moriarty as Earlene Bullis, Meat Loaf as Sheriff John Doggett, Rod Steiger as Judge Louis Mead, Richard Schiff as Norman the Chauffeur, John Beasley as Nehemiah Jackson, Robert Wagner as Harry Hall, Noah Emmerich as Sheriff Raymond, Paul Ben-Victor as D.A. Mackie, Dakota Johnson as Sondra, Fannie Flagg as Sally
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