[Screen It]

(1999) (Melanie Griffith, Lucas Black) (PG-13)

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Drama/Black comedy: Having killed her husband, a flamboyant woman pursues her dreams of becoming a Hollywood actress while her young nephew encounters racism in the deep South.
In the summer of 1965, Lucille (MELANIE GRIFFITH), a flamboyant and possibly eccentric 34-year-old woman, has just killed and decapitated Chester, her abusive husband of thirteen years. Wishing to pursue her dream of becoming a Hollywood actress, she drops off her seven young kids with her mother and heads off to the west coast, making her 13-year-old nephew and confidant, Peejoe (LUCAS BLACK), promise not to tell anyone where she's going.

Due to the influx of children in the home, Peejoe and his brother Wiley (DAVID SPECK) are sent off to live with their aunt Earlene (CATHY MORIARTY) and uncle Dove (DAVID MORSE), the later of whom runs the small Alabama town's funeral home. There, they see the civil rights movement in action, as a black teenager, Taylor Jackson (LOUIS MILLER), ignites the fuse on a racial powder keg by demanding to be allowed to swim in a public pool.

When they're refused admittance, Jackson and his buddies stage a sit-in, causing the pool managers to call Sheriff John Doggett (MEAT LOAF) and his deputies to the scene. Pandemonium breaks out, and in the process Doggett catches and yanks Jackson from a fence, sending him crashing to his death below on the hard concrete, with Peejoe being the only white witness to this act.

Soon Dove and Taylor's father, Nehemiah (JOHN BEASLEY) try to figure out how to remove Doggett from his seat of power, but worry that Peejoe might receive the brunt of rising racial tension in the town. As this occurs and with Doggett pledging to send her to the electric chair once caught, Lucille, after some more criminal activity and a winning stint in Las Vegas, makes it to Hollywood.

There, with Chester's head (voice of BRENT BRISCOE) still in tow and verbally tormenting her, she meets an agent, Harry Hall (ROBERT WAGNER). He takes her under his wing and gets her a TV gig, inspiring some jealousy from movie actress Joan Blake (ELIZABETH PERKINS). As her star rises, suspicions mount about what she's carrying in her hatbox, while at the same time the conflict between Doggett and Dove and Peejoe continues back in the deep South.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Depending on the context, the word "crazy" can have vastly different meanings. "I'm crazy about you" is something everyone loves to hear, while "You're driving me crazy" can be good in an amorous sense or not so good if it's delivered in an annoyed tone. When someone says "You're crazy," however, they're either a mental practitioner with an improper and/or politically incorrect couch-side manner, or someone who believes that your latest endeavor is foolish or impossible to accomplish.

That's often the case with people who decide to change professions or jump from one area to the next. Such is the case with actor Antonio Banderas moving from in front of the camera to behind it with his directorial debut of "Crazy in Alabama." While other thespians (such as Billy Bob Thornton) have successfully tackled the directing bug in them, I have this gut feeling that many may snicker or roll their eyes upon hearing that the Spaniard who heated up the screen in films such as "The Mask of Zorro" and "Evita" was going to helm a feature.

After all, some may imagine a popular skit from TV's "Saturday Night Live" where Chris Kattan plays the swarthy actor who can't always remember the English words he needs to use. As such, skeptics might hear Kattan doing his best Banderas accent and saying, "Lights...camera...(pause)...How do you say...Ah, yes!...Action!"

While the results here certainly aren't that bad and don't elicit any evidence of such problems on the set, the film isn't quite what Banderas and company probably envisioned and expected. Based on screenwriter Mark Childress' (making his film debut) 1994 novel of the same name, the film suffers from a storytelling malady that, in psychiatric circles, is often labeled as split personality disorder.

Part black comedy, part goofy comedy, half "touchy feely" drama, and the rest being a historically relevant piece, the film is all over the board and never demonstrates a dominant personality, or genre if you will, to lead the viewer through the story. Beyond attempting to be too many things at once, the film eventually suffers from simultaneously telling two nearly separate stories, one about a murderer on the loose, the other about a civil rights incident.

While it's not that difficult to figure out that both are telling their own freedom-based tales and they do create some interest in how they'll eventually tie in or come back together, the fact that the film continuously alternates between the stories -- with only a slender plot thread connecting them -- ultimately undermines the overall effort.

Banderas, who does deliver some decently staged scenes, also shows his green directorial thumb by often rushing through or over the stories, resulting in both of them feeling disjointed and episodic. Although it's a welcomed change to see a first time director not being too cautious, the result of this approach is that we're further distanced from the proceedings.

Despite the presence of composer Mark Snow's ("The X-Files" and many TV shows and movies) attempt at nudging or, at worst, directly manipulating the audience's emotions at the appropriate times with his score, the result of the film chronologically jumping from one scene to the next is that few of them are thus allowed to develop fully and deliver the necessary and proper emotional impact.

While it's not difficult to spot the scenes where we're supposed to be touched or moved, the previous problems and the fact that we're consequently never given the chance to truly care about the characters prevents the film from achieving the heights it desires.

Although all of that doesn't create a horrible filmgoing experience by any means and Banderas shows some potential for later returned trips to the director's seat, a more seasoned filmmaker may have created a more appealing and even keeled picture with fewer problems.

As a result of the episodic and mostly disparate stories, the performers don't have much of a chance at creating well developed or sympathetic characters. That particularly applies to Melanie Griffith ("Celebrity," "Working Girl") who embodies her somewhat eccentric character with the proper, wacky attributes, but can't overcome her poorly explained character. Although we get a ninth inning explanation of why she killed her husband, not everything fits together into a believable whole.

Some might not have a problem believing she'd off him, ditch the kids with her mother and head to Hollywood, but it's never quite believably portrayed that she would carrying her husband's severed head around with her for so long (not even considering the decomposition/stench factor that no quantity of 1960's portable cooling techniques could overcome).

Had her character been written and played as truly crazy -- which at times is hinted at but ultimately is vanquished by the film's ending -- it might have been easier to accept her behavior and the film's attempt at black comedy (including her dead husband's severed head continuing to verbally taunt her).

Faring better is Lucas Black ("Sling Blade," "The War") as her coming of age nephew and the film's occasional narrator. Able to deliver terrific looks of fierce concentration and determination, not to mention an appropriate and natural sounding southern accent, Black commands every scene in which he appears. Meanwhile, David Morse ("Contact," "The Long Kiss Goodnight") is good as his calm, voice of reason uncle, Meat Loaf ("Fight Club," "The Mighty") is quite believable as the racist small town sheriff, and veteran actor Rod Steiger ("In the Heat of the Night," "The Pawnbroker") shows up late in the game as a goofy trial judge.

With a good cast and two decent, but distinct stories and a plethora of attempted genres, it's too bad everything doesn't tie and blend together in a better of at least smoother fashion. While a court case ending tries to do just that, it, like much of the rest of the film, feels rushed and disjointed and never quite lives up to what it could and should have been. As a result, the overall proceedings are neither great nor horrible, but instead have a mediocre feel to them with glimmers and instances of a much better movie occasionally showing up. Thus, "Crazy in Alabama" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 19, 1999 / Posted October 22, 1999

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