Crazy in Alabama
Antonio Banderas came to America as the sexy Spanish star with the most appealing bedroom eyes since Rudolph Valentino. But he's shown since that he's more than a hunk, with thoughtful acting in a variety of roles and now his first directing job, the strange and awkward film "Crazy in Alabama." Based on a novel by Mark Childress, who also wrote the script, it is what Polonius might call a comical-historical-pastoral-tragical view of the south in the 1960s.
The film tells two stories that are tied together only by virtue of their protagonists being aunt and nephew. Aunt Lucille (Melanie Griffith) arrives at the home of her 13-year-old nephew Peejoe (Lucas Black) in rural Alabama one day in 1965, to leave her seven children with her mother, Lucas's grandmother, while she goes to Hollywood to be a star. As it happens, the impelling reason for the trip is that she has just murdered her husband and now carries his head with her as she looks for a good place to dispose of it. Meanwhile, Peejoe is confronted with the coming of the civil rights movement to his town, as black children try to integrate the municipal whites-only swimming pool and meet the vicious resistance of the local sheriff and his minions.
The film crosscuts from one story to the other, moving west with Lucille to her apotheosis in Hollywood, and staying very much at home with Peejoe, whose father Dove (David Morse) owns the town's white funeral home, as the integrationist movement gains power from tragedy and Peejoe discovers his own inner strength. The film's climax comes after Lucille returns to Alabama for her murder trial, and justice is properly meted out.
Griffith, who is as versatile an actress as anyone working today ("Milagro Beanfield War," "Working Girl," and last year's amazing "Another Day in Paradise" show some of her range), is given her head here to play a delicious hick on her way to fame and fortune. Young Lucas Black, as Peejoe, has a wonderfully open and unselfconscious manner that lets the film's points come through without the need to stress anything.
But the unexpectedly brilliant performance here is by, of all people, Rod Steiger as the judge who presides at Lucille's murder trial. Steiger gives us a tour de force example of an autocrat with a heart of gold, as he takes over the courtroom, and the movie, at a moment when the film has painted itself plotwise into a corner. He rescues both Lucille and the film in perhaps ten minutes of screen time, with a performance that rivals that of the great Judy Dench as Elizabeth in "Shakespeare in Love."
Banderas got his acting start in Pedro Almodovar's films, and you'll notice a number of nods at Almodovar's style in his directing work here, beginning with the opening credits, which echo those of "Dark Habits" and "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," and then are visible in some of Lucille's scenes on the road and in Hollywood. They add a charming texture to what might otherwise have been too simple a story.