Sometimes you have to lose your mind to find your freedom.
Civil rights drama…husband-murdering hijinxs. Civil rights drama…husband-murdering hijinxs. Yep, the two just seem to go together, don’t they? Crazy in Alabama takes the two disparate ideas and ties them together by telling the story through the eyes of a young boy. It would have worked better if they had gone with one idea — either one, for that matter — and run with it, rather than going for the floor-wax-and-dessert-topping approach.
After viewing Crazy in Alabama twice, once without the director’s commentary and once with, it’s obvious that the film was a work of love for its director, Antonio Banderas. Crazy in Alabama was his first directorial effort, a fact that is touted often in the film’s promotional materials. 1999 was the year for first-time directors. Most of the popular or critically-acclaimed pictures were the work of freshmen — American Beauty, The Sixth Sense, Being John Malkovich. Crazy in Alabama doesn’t deserve to be amongst that pantheon, for the movie is flawed from the get-go by combining two stories that are so dissimilar that the one makes a mockery of the other.
Crazy in Alabama takes place in Alabama (natch) in 1965. It begins by informing us that Lucille (Melanie Griffith — Working Girl, Pacific Heights, Mulholland Falls) has murdered her husband. She didn’t just kill him; she cut off his head with the electric carving knife he gave her for Christmas, stowed it in a Tupperware container, and brought it along with her in a grocery bag. She passes on these facts to Peejoe (Lucas Black — Sling Blade, The X-Files: Fight the Future), her teen-aged nephew, before leaving her seven (seven!) kids with her mother and driving off for the green pastures of Hollywood. Peejoe promises to keep it a secret, but of course he spills the secret to his Uncle Dove (David Morse — The Rock, Contact, The Green Mile). Dove calls in Sheriff Doggett (Meat Loaf Aday — The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Leap Of Faith [a highly recommended movie], Fight Club), who immediately proceeds to send out an APB for crazy Aunt Lucille. The movie makes it clear that Sheriff Doggett is a Bad Man, and that’s where the movie segues into the other story.
One lazy summer afternoon, Peejoe is swimming in the local public pool. Suddenly, the pool empties — a black teenager has snuck into the pool and dared to swim in the hallowed waters. The pool keeper attempts to get them to leave, but the youths resist. That’s when Sheriff Doggett arrives. When the boys attempt to run and escape, the sheriff chases them down. One boy tries to climb a fence, only to be thrown down on the hard concrete deck. He dies instantly. This would be of little concern to the sheriff…except there was a witness: Peejoe.
As the black community mourns, Peejoe reveals to Dove what he saw. Dove knows that it’s not the first time something like this has happened; he’s a funeral home director and is privy to information on how certain residents (of African descent) died. Thus, Peejoe’s and Dove’s moral dilemma is presented: do they maintain their silence and allow more innocent people to die, or do they testify to the Justice Department, stop Doggett’s reign of terror, and in turn be shunned by white society?
Meanwhile, Lucille embarks for California to become a movie star. She has misadventures along the way, not unlike any you would have already seen in Thelma And Louise or any other woman-on-the-run-from-the-law pictures. She steals a car, breaks out of jail, wins lots of money in Vegas, blah blah blah. She even manages to land a guest-star spot on “Bewitched.” Her spree ends at the Golden Gate Bridge when two cops attempt to stop her from jumping (a clichéd misunderstanding) and discover her husband’s head. And abruptly, the civil rights storyline is brought to an end, written out with the lamest of all possible explanations. Instead, we’re treated to a courtroom scene, presided over by Rod Steiger (playing the judge role just as over-the-top as he did the general in Mars Attacks!), testing the sanity of a woman who carried her husband’s head across the United States in a Tupperware container.
For a foreigner, Banderas captures the discordant spirit of McGovern era Alabama perfectly. Meat Loaf proves that his bona fide acting in Fight Club wasn’t a fluke. The role of Sheriff Doggett is little more than a caricature, yet he manages to make it three-dimensional and breathing. He represents the fear and hatred that may people did (and still do) feel over something as arbitrary as ancestry or skin color. It’s a shame that the movie didn’t focus entirely on the death of the black boy and the subsequent dilemma felt by the characters. I found myself wanting to know what happened. The story of Lucille is vapid and uninteresting in comparison, for it lacks any emotional or societal resonance. When Griffith stands up in court and complains that a little part of her died every time her husband gobbled down the dinner she carefully prepared, I found myself thinking, “How is this more important than an entire group of people oppressed far more severely?” Nepotism is the only possible answer (Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas are married).
But enough about the movie itself. The DVD is exactly what you would expect from Columbia: an excellent transfer and feature-rich. The movie is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic. Banderas shows considerable visual flair, so every inch of the frame is used in most shots. Seeing the image butchered in the pan-and-scan supplements was a shame (but more on those in a minute). The transfer is very clean, showing minimal dirt flecks on the negative, and with very little edge enhancement or NTSC noise. There was only one scene in which I noticed a problem, and that was some shimmering in a tweed jacket worn by a man in Hollywood in the latter part of the movie. One or two scenes seemed a little washed out or overexposed, but I believe that was a stylistic choice rather than a fault of the transfer.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The movie is mostly driven by dialogue, and as such doesn’t have an earth-splitting mix. However, the surround channels are used effectively for the ’60s-era soundtrack and for a nice “gimmick” (for lack of a better term). At several points, Lucille can hear her husband talking to her through his head. His voice echoes around the room, jumping from speaker to speaker in a way that seems to put us in her head. Like I said, it’s a gimmick, but it’s cool.
The extras are a mostly-pleasant mix of the useful and the expendable. As for the useful, there’s a commentary track featuring Banderas and one of the female producers of the film (her name escapes me). The commentary is not entirely “scene specific.” Throughout the film, the producer asks Banderas questions about the film, the filming process, and the editing process (apparently, the first cut of the film ran nearly 3 1/2 hours). Occasionally, the questions are prompted by a scene in the movie, at other times they are more generic. One thing is clear: the movie was a labor of love for Banderas. The other useful extra is a set of two deleted scenes. You can choose to watch them with or without commentary by Banderas. They run about nine minutes, and were not particularly useful to the plot of the film, but they do show more of Meat Loaf as Sheriff Doggett. Now for the expendable extras. There’s a second commentary track, recorded solo by Melanie Griffith. If you think she sounds shallow in the movie, wait until you hear her commentary. To be fair, I didn’t watch all of it; I turned it on at random points when the other commentary was a little dry. She is silent for long stretches, only interjecting the most worthless of tidbits (like, “It was really hot while we were filming that”). The making-of featurette is a typical studio promotional tool, offering few real insights into the movie. It’s interesting only for the clues it reveals into how the studio wanted to promote the movie. It barely mentions the civil rights thread. It never mentions that Lucille killed her husband. All it really focuses on is Lucille’s dream of becoming a movie star. Groan. Also included is a blooper reel (mostly culled from scenes that were cut from the film), talent files, and trailers for Crazy in Alabama and Body Double.
In the movie’s defense, I can say that I found it more enjoyable than I thought I would. I avoided the movie theatrically like it was a mound of pre-digested collard greens. Some of my fears were unfounded — Antonio Banderas can direct quite ably and with a good eye. But, the movie’s biggest drawback to me was the thing I feared most: Melanie Griffith. She’s a poor excuse for an actress, and the movie focused too much on her at the expense of a story that would have been more poignant.
If I haven’t scared you away, Crazy in Alabama would make a good rental if you can’t find anything more desirable at Blockbuster.