On the basis of his directorial debut, there are three things we can safely say about Antonio Banderas: (1) He's an actor's director -- he can pick a good cast and coax great performances from them; (2) he knows how to make a good image and where to point the camera; (3) he has absolutely no idea how to choose his material.
Crazy in Alabama, set in 1965, is based on a book that probably should have remained unfilmed, or at least adapted by someone with a better cinematic sense than its own author, who has never written a screenplay before. To call the big-screen version "Thelma & Louise meets To Kill a Mockingbird" is accurate in the most literal sense; it's as if someone physically took both of those movies and spliced them together -- the way Roger Corman used to buy cheap existing footage, then splice it in with some footage of his own and add a voice-over narration that desperately tried to make sense of the resultant collage. Either one of the component stories might have had legs as a fully realized feature in its own right, but, as presented, neither has the time to get beyond the core elements of the aforementioned films from which they both seem to derive.
In the first story, Melanie Griffith plays the "eccentric" (read: crazy, but in a good way) Lucille, who has finally broken away from her abusive husband by cutting off his head. Dumping off her large gaggle of children at the doorstep of her beleaguered mother, Lucille sets out for Hollywood with her husband's head stuffed away in a hatbox, from whence it periodically taunts and yells at her. Even killing him, the story implies, has not yet truly liberated her, but she figures she'll finally be able to dispose of the head (and therefore the bonds of domesticity) once she attains her dream of being on TV. Meanwhile, any law she breaks is fine and dandy, because, as in Thelma & Louise, it's all in the name of female empowerment and freedom.
The second story kicks off back at Lucille's mother's place, where the large influx of Lucille's children forces out the elder son, Peejoe (Sling Blade's Lucas Black), and his younger brother, who are deemed mature enough to move in with their Uncle Dove (David Morse), who lives above the funeral home that he runs. Remarkably progressive for a white boy in his small Alabama town, Peejoe is stunned when he witnesses the local black kids sneaking into the public swimming pool, then being aggressively ousted when discovered. Inspired by the civil-rights movement that their parents are swept up in, the black kids stage a sit-in, which is violently broken up by the local racist sheriff, wonderfully embodied by rocker Meat Loaf Aday. (On a side note, doesn't Meat Loaf realize that adding his real last name undermines the power of his nom de rock? After all, you don't see any movies starring "Sting Sumner" or "Ice Cube Jackson.") When Peejoe happens to witness the "accidental" death of one of the young boys at the hands of the sheriff, the Mockingbird storyline is set in motion.
Although loosely tied together by the fact that the sheriff discovers Lucille's dead husband sans head early on and becomes determined to get revenge on the whole family, the two stories are separated not only by geography but also by tone. Thus any seriousness of the civil-rights story in the small town is undermined, rather than enhanced, by the surreal black comedy of Melanie Griffith and her talking head trying to score a recurring role on Bewitched, and vice versa. Even though the two storylines are brought together at the end for an only-in-the-movies total-closure ending, the film feels like two films that aren't closely related enough, either tonally or narratively, to warrant their intertwining. When Lucille finally returns to her hometown, for instance, she is suddenly at the mercy of judge Rod Steiger, heretofore unseen, playing an over-the-top Cajun cartoon in direct contrast to Meat Loaf and the other hard-assed lawmen who have been seen in the town thus far. With Steiger's cuddly yet firm Waterboy refugee running things, one wonders how a mean-spirited racist ever became sheriff and why black people (or anyone else) would have any reason to complain about local justice.
Other than Steiger, the performances are both strong and convincing. Morse and Black prove to all who haven't been paying attention that they're actors to watch, and John Beasley (The Apostle) puts in the film's strongest performance as the town's black funeral director. Amusing cameos are provided by Elizabeth Perkins, Cathy Moriarty and Robert Wagner, and it should surprise no one that Griffith, Banderas' wife, turns in perhaps the strongest performance she has ever given (although the climax seems blatantly calculated to give her an excuse to emote through tears). Give Banderas due credit also for not creating a gratuitous cameo for himself, as most actor-turned-directors would. Just how much credit to give him overall, however, is in question. Even with a cast this good, it's hard to imagine any director being able to do much with such a skimpy, mishmashed script.
Opens Oct. 22.