Crazy in Alabama begins with peacock-hued animated credits as Nancy Sinatra’s "These Boots Are Made for Walking" thumps along the soundtrack. It ends with poignant violins and an uplifting helicopter shot. In between, we’re presented with two very disparate story lines, a black comedy and a social drama, that may have made a pair of interesting films if kept separate. Instead they’re prodded into an unhappy shotgun marriage by first time Director Antonio Banderas, working from a script adapted by Mark Childress from his novel.
In 1965, Industry, Alabama, racial tension is simmering as local blacks attempt to assert their rights under the watchful eye of stereotypical redneck Sheriff John Doggett (Meat Loaf). Orphaned 12 year old Peejoe Willis (Lucas Black) is coming of age, staying with his uncle Dove (David Morse), the local undertaker – at least for the white folks. His eccentric-yet-lovable Aunt Lucille (director Banderas’ wife Melanie Griffith) has just murdered her abusive husband with rat poison and cut off his head with an electric kitchen knife. She’s leaving town – and her six children – before the local law wises up. And, of course, she’s taking the hubby’s severed head along in a Tupperware container as she makes her way to Hollywood to try to become an actress.
The civil rights story is the more interesting and complex, and at times wields real power and emotion. Issues and tensions mount as blacks stage a demonstration at the whites-only municipal swimming pool. Police-instigated violence erupts and a black teen is killed due to the Sheriff’s brutality. Peejoe witnesses the incident and is torn between his sense of duty and justice and his uncle’s wish to shield him from such ugliness. These events unfold mostly from Peejoe’s point of view, from which we see this oft-told story anew. Black and Morse give the best performances in a film largely populated by cardboard cutouts.
Lucille’s story arc, by far the thinner of the two, suffers in often silly contrast to the serious events taking place back in Industry. On her way to California, she has a few minor run-ins with the law in which she uses feminine wiles to escape. She has recurring conversations with her late husband’s head, now ensconced in a fashionable hatbox. Once in LA, a preening agent (Robert Wagner, looking fossilized) lands her a supporting role on TV’s "Bewitched". Griffith is not an actress of great range – cleavage and collagen long being her greatest assets – but even in this setting she falls short. Banderas focuses most of the camera’s attention on his wife’s most visible attributes, but her pneumatic pectorals lose their impact after the first 500 jiggles, and she’s obviously too old to have been considered an ingenue in mid-’60s Hollywood.
The film’s biggest problem, however, comes at the conclusion. The two stories are mashed into an uncomfortable amalgam when Lucille is caught and brought back home to stand trial for murder, and Doggett tells Peejoe that he’ll go easy on Aunt Lucille if the boy conveniently forgets about the Sheriff’s little mistake at the pool. It’s perhaps fitting here that Banderas, a renowned scenery-chewer in his own performances, employs world-class overactor Rod Steiger as the trial’s judge. Looking very out of place in his modern day Harry Caray-sized wire-rimmed glasses and new age necklace, Steiger manages to add several extra syllables and facial tics to even the simplest declarative statements and effectively destroys any drama or realism that this part of the story might have retained.
Previously known for his acting (The Mask of Zorro, Desperado, Evita), director Banderas manages to craft some serviceable scenes and escapes his first effort with no glaring gaffes, although at crucial story points he leans a little too heavily on slow motion camerawork and Mark Snow’s violin-laden soundtrack to supply the emotion.
It would be nice to report that within Crazy in Alabama there is one good movie struggling to get out, but like the performer on the old Ed Sullivan Show who spun those plates on the tall thin sticks, there are simply too many things going on at once to care too much about any one of them.
– Bob Aulert