Having first-time director Antonio Banderas guide his real-life wife, Melanie Griffith, through a tale about rural 1965 Alabama sounds like the recipe for a movie that's destined to fall flat on its face. Though the end product isn't as bad as it sounds, it's not as good as it could be, either.
Having grown up under Spain's Francisco Franco, Banderas has experienced firsthand a nation's struggles with newfound freedom. His depiction of the civil-rights experience in the Deep South therefore conveys some real passion and feeling. Instead, it's the missus who causes the problems in his first movie.
This broken-backed work is actually two stories in one. The first covers the oddball flight of Aunt Lucille (Griffith), who carries the severed head of her husband in a hatbox en route to her new life as a starlet in Hollywood. The other details the events back home, where Lucille's teenage nephew, Peejoe (Lucas Black), is privy to a town's secrets during a time when secrets can mean great power.
Banderas doesn't embarrass himself with either story, although his camera sometimes plods and you often find yourself wishing he'd get more out of his actors. But he's stuck with Griffith as Lucille. Though her name above the title probably assured the movie's completion, she's a good decade older than her character, and has no feel for playing the irrationally powerful renegade. With her presence causing the upbeat portion of Mark Childress' story (adapted from his own novel) to drag its feet, the movie tips out of kilter.
A more experienced director might not have fared much better. But marrying directorial style with story is a fine art. (If not, "Forces of Nature" would be on a par with "It Happened One Night" and Quentin Tarantino would have greater success with other writers' scripts.) As the great John Huston said, "99 percent of direction is in the casting."
Scattered across the rest of "Crazy in Alabama," you'll find glimpses of several interesting actors as they toil away in minor roles: Rod Steiger as a judge; Meat Loaf Aday as a sheriff; Cathy Moriarty as a mortician's wife; Elizabeth Perkins as a catty actress; Robert Wagner as a Hollywood agent; Fannie Flagg as a talky waitress; and Paul Mazursky as a producer. Black (the little boy in "Sling Blade") plays Peejoe with a tight-lipped charm, and the Houma, La., sets convey an authentic regional texture.
Banderas, who in 51 features has risen from a pretty-boy curiosity in Pedro Almodóvar's comedies to a major international star, clearly knows his way around a film set. And when he finds a cast that to a man (or woman) matches his developing vision, he'll probably make better movies.