Crazy in Alabama

Directed by Antonio Banderas
Starring: Melanie Griffith, David Morse, Lucas Black, Cathy Moriarty, Meat Loaf.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, thematic material, language and a scene of sensuality.

Review by Matt Heffernan
October 23, 1999

This hasn't been an exceptionally good year for Antonio Banderas. After the modest success of last year's The Mask of Zorro, he got involved with one of the most mis-directed projects ever: The 13th Warrior. That wasn't exactly the experience he needed before making his directorial debut.

Lucille Bullis (Melanie Griffith, Banderas' wife) has killed her husband, Chester, and leaves her six children with her mother while she goes off to Hollywood. Her orphaned nephews, Peter Joseph "Pee-Joe" (Lucas Black) and Wiley (David Speck) are now forced to leave their grandmother's house to live with Dove (David Morse), their uncle and only other family member. Lucille was very open about her crime, so the rest of the Bullis family notified the authorities after she left. Sheriff John Doggett (Meat Loaf) is on the case, and expects Pee-Joe to testify against Lucille, because she told him everything.

A big part of that everything was Chester's head, which she cut off with an electric knife and put in a plastic container. Instead of disposing of the container, she takes it around with her, eventually buying an expensive hat just for the box, so her cargo will look more stylish. Back in sweet home Alabama, Pee-Joe and Wiley have to deal with living in the creepy funeral home that Dove operates, and his equally annoying wife, Earlene (Cathy Moriarty). In addition, Pee-Joe is witness to Sheriff Doggett killing a black teenager at a public pool for whites only. The film takes place in 1965, before the Civil Rights Act, so African-Americans had no right to vote or even tread on "public" property. Dove and Pee-Joe intend to blackmail the Sheriff to keep him from arresting Lucille.

The ads for Crazy in Alabama stress the second murder, making you think that it will be the main plot. In actuality, it is merely a subplot to Lucille's Hollywood adventure. Banderas clearly made this film as a showcase for Griffith, and her parts have an amusing black comedy aspect. Lucille tells everybody that she killed her husband, and that his head is in the hatbox, but they all think she is kidding.

The secondary story about Pee-Joe, however, is a strictly by-the-numbers story about the racial struggle during that time. Black is an exceptional actor, a genius at a very young age. I first noticed him in the short-lived series "American Gothic", and I was blown away by his presence and natural ability. Later, in Sling Blade, he gave one of the best performances by any actor in the 1990's. In this film, he is just wasted. Banderas just isn't capable (at least not in his first film) to direct an actor of this caliber. Black needs to find a Scorsese-De Niro type of partnership to grow as an artist. Here he is relegated to just another trite exercise, and exposed to a film that is confused about its theme. It is so fantastically absurd, that it fails miserably when it tries to be serious.

So, what do you do with a film like this? It's extremely unsure of itself and ultimately forgettable. It stands as a vanity project for the Banderas family, and a momentary setback in Black's promising career. Next year, Black re-teams with Billy Bob Thornton for All the Pretty Horses. Perhaps in Thornton he will find a lasting mentor. He can even learn how to have a deep southern accent and still be a respected actor.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Crazy in Alabama (1999)

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Crazy in Alabama (1999) -- VHS
Crazy in Alabama (1999) -- DVD
Crazy in Alabama, a novel by Mark Childress -- Paperback
Crazy in Alabama, a novel by Mark Childress -- Audio Cassette (read by the author)
Crazy in Alabama: Soundtrack -- Compact Disc Home
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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan