Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 2.35:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC] & Dolby Surround, subtitles: none, single side-dual layer, 28 chapters, rated PG-13, 113 min., $24.95, street date 3/28/2000.
Directed by Antonio Banderas. Starring Melanie Griffith, David Morse, Lucas Black, Meat Loaf, Cathy Moriarty, Rod Steiger, Richard Schiff, John Beasley, Robert Wagner, Noah Emmerich.
Antonio Banderas' directorial debut opens in the sweltering summer of 1965, and everyone in Alabama has gone completely crazy, especially 12-year-old Peejoe's glamorous Aunt Lucille (Melanie Griffith). Deciding not to let her abusive husband stand in the way of her dreams of television stardom, she gets rid of him in a most unusual way and leaves Peejoe (Lucas Black) with lots of questions and one explosive secret. Accompanied only by her hatbox and its mysterious contents, Lucille tries to evade both the cops and her demons on her hilarious journey to Hollywood, while Peejoe is left behind with his uncle (David Morse) in Alabama. And as he tries to steer clear of the cunning sheriff (Meat Loaf Aday), Peejoe learns which secrets to keep and which ones to tell in this poignant comedy about the price of freedom and why it's always worth it, whatever the cost.
Crazy In Alabama may be the most bizarre movie I've seen in years. Oh, it's not overtly strange in the Coen brothers/indie film kind of manner; it earns an oddness all its own.
First of all, it's a bit of a vanity project as it offers the directorial debut of that hunky Antonio Banderas. Why in the world is Banderas directing a movie? Because he's a popular actor, and studios let popular actors do whatever they want, I guess; the suits don't want to offend such high-profile talent.
CIA adds vanity on top of vanity through the casting of Banderas' honey Melanie Griffith as its star. Initially one might think she was aiming for that kind of serious "Oscar-bait" character with her performance as Lucille, the long-suffering wife of abusive husband Chester and mother to his seven children. At the film's outset, we learn that she's offed Chester once and for all. (Don't worry - this isn't a spoiler, since all of this information appears in the first five minutes of the film.)
Based on that description, you'd think Lucille offers a broken-down, tired woman, but that's not the case. As portrayed by Griffith, she seems fresh as a daisy, bright and vivacious. Hmm... I suppose it's possible that an uneducated, lower-class 34-year-old woman who's suffered at the hands of a cruel husband for many years and who has pumped out seven kids in a pretty brief period of time could be this sexy and exciting, but that's a very serious stretch of credibility.
Even if we accept that conceit, CIA still comes across as a bizarrely muddled piece of work. Banderas can't quite decide if he wants to make a screwball comedy, a feminist fantasy, a "coming of age" drama or a period piece that examines the civil rights movement of the Sixties. The film leaps around from theme to theme with little rhyme or reason; it's just whatever mood struck Banderas, I guess.
Miraculously, the film actually is interesting and mildly entertaining, despite its lack of focus. Unfortunately, it's ultimately unsatisfying because of the bizarre scope of the picture. It's the "jack of all trades" syndrome; Banderas tries so much that he doesn't do any of it particularly well. He throws enough at the wall that some of it sticks, but the realism of the entire project seems low, which makes the whole thing less than good.
I actually considered the possibility that CIA is supposed to be a fantasy. I mean, so much of it exists in a world that never could have existed. A 34-year-old abused housewife heads to Hollywood and instantly makes it big? After she leaves, her family just happens to become involved in a civil rights conflagration so large it attracts the presence of Martin Luther King? Other oddities occur as well but I don't want to discuss too many of them - to do so would reveal too much of the plot - but the story does not have much relation to the real world.
Maybe Banderas did intend the film to function as a fantasy, but he never makes this clear during the movie. In his audio commentary, he indicates that Lucille's giddy trip west is essentially a dream as seen through the eyes of her nephew Peejoe (Lucas Black) - the main character in the civil rights side of the film - but this interpretation only goes so far. I can accept that her lucky ways may not have happened, but we have proof that the character makes it in Hollywood; the folks back in Alabama see her on TV, so it's not possible the entire Lucille crusade was just a figment of Peejoe's imagination.
That leaves the possibility that the entire story is supposed to be a fantasy, but we see very little indication this is the case. Oh, it could be gleaned from the unrealistic nature of the plot, but just because a movie doesn't connect to reality doesn't mean that it's supposed to be a fantasy, and CIA never lets the audience in on the joke (if there is one).
Maybe Banderas worried that he'd never get another chance to direct a film and he tried to pack in all of his ideas in this picture. Whatever the case, Crazy In Alabama makes for a curiously entertaining but ultimately bizarre and unsatisfying experience.
Crazy In Alabama appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Every time I pop in a DVD from Columbia-Tristar (CTS), I secretly hope it'll look terrible, just because I get so bored of writing about all of their excellent transfers. That occasion won't come today, as CIA offers yet another fine-looking DVD from CTS.
Sharpness looks consistently crisp and detailed, with few instances of moiré effects or jagged edges. Some occasional problems result from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV, but not many. Grain, speckles, scratches, spots or other flaws seemed absent.
Colors seemed quite bold and brilliant; the film uses a very bright palette at times and these hues come through wonderfully. Black levels appeared appropriately deep and rich, and shadow detail was fine. All in all, it's a great-looking DVD.
Also terrific is the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Normally this kind of movie wouldn't get much of a soundtrack, but this mix suits an odd little picture like this. The forward soundstage is very wide and broad, and it places the audio effectively and naturally. The rears also get a surprising workout, with quite a lot of sound coming from the surrounds; most interesting is the use of Chester's ghostly voice, which rolls around from speaker to speaker. The ultimate effect is a nicely-involving soundtrack.
Audio quality seems very good. Dialogue sounds natural and clear, with no intelligibility problems. Effects are deep and realistic and add a lot of punch to the mix. Music seems clean and smooth, with good dynamic range. It's a typically strong mix for such a recent film.
CIA doesn't include a ton of extras, but some interesting pieces appear. The most compelling entries are two separate audio commentaries. The first comes from director Banderas who is semi-interviewed by producer Linda Goldsten Knowlton. She gives Banderas some cues to prompt his comments, but he generally doesn't need much stimulation; he's a chatty and charming participant. His statements generally aren't excessively fascinating but his enthusiasm seems infectious. Banderas fills us in on a variety of topics that relate to the production, but he's at his most passionate when he discusses the fact that some don't think this Spaniard should have directed a movie about the American South; he doesn't seem defensive but he offers a surprisingly honest defense for himself and better explains his intentions. Banderas offers a pretty good commentary which allows him to come across as a relatively straightforward and bright guy.
The second track offers star Griffith. She doesn't have a reputation as the brightest bulb in the bunch, and this commentary won't do much to dispel that notion. Sample quote: "These are the credits - these credits are cool! Credits are hard to make, believe it or not". Other fascinating tidbits include: "This woman is great!"; "I love the music!"; "This woman, Fannie Flagg - she wrote Fried Green Tomatoes, and she is so cool!"; "He's great, this guy!"; "Movies are amazing. I think they're beautiful" Those aren't rare exceptions to an otherwise solid commentary; those examples pretty well indicate what you'll hear during Griffith's track.
She says almost nothing of use during her commentary. Actually, it's a sparse track, as quite a few blank spots occur. Every once in a while Griffith tosses out something of actual interest - like when she points out the actor who voices her husband Chester - but for the vast majority of the time, all she does is make remarks similar to those listed above. She also teaches us all about the civil rights movement and how unfair and things were for blacks back in those days. Really? Who knew? (She even gets in a mention of the "Kosovonians"!)
But you know what? I loved it. Maybe I'm just cruel, but I found this to be one of the funniest commentaries ever - too bad that element was unintentional. Griffith is so insanely clueless and dim; you don't get to hear a dull-witted movie star ramble on without pause very often, since usually others have the good sense to edit their remarks. Not the case here; we get pure, unadulterated Griffith vapidity, and it's a sight to behold! Someone at CTS must really dislike Griffith to let her appear in this manner. I planned to sell this DVD, but I may have to keep it just to listen to this sucker again someday.
The DVD tosses in a few other supplements as well. The "Photo Montage" gives us an eight-minute program that connects film clips, one behind the scenes video from the set, and a bunch of stills accompanied by a narration from Banderas. I found it to be somewhat dull; Banderas sticks to comments that essentially just tell us about the movie, and the photos are nothing particularly interesting.
Two deleted scenes appear in that section, which runs for a little more than five minutes. These can be seen either with or without commentary from Banderas. Both clips are interesting but deserved to be cut, and Banderas does a good job of communicating why they were omitted.
We get the standard promotional featurette, which lasts almost five minutes and is actually mildly interesting; it involves a lot of interview clips with the film's principals and seems less overtly commercial than most of these. The "Blooper Reel" is one minute and 20 seconds of the usual inane flubs and silliness (when will Congress ban these terrible things?!) while "Trailers" gives us promos for both CIA and Griffith's Body Double. Finally, we get the typical terrible talent files for six of the actors and Banderas - why CTS offer the worst biographies in the business makes no sense to me - and some decent production notes in the DVD's booklet.
The most significant negative about this DVD comes from the interface in its menus. The only way you can tell what option you've highlighted is to notice the very thin red border that goes around a white box. Even up close, this can be very difficult to detect and it makes navigating the package much more annoying than it should be. I appreciate creativity on the part of DVD producers, but this is just poor design.
Crazy In Alabama isn't a very good movie, but it's unique and makes for one of the oddest viewing experiences I can remember. The DVD offers terrific picture and sound plus some interesting supplements, headed by an unintentionally hilarious audio commentary from Melanie "Mensa" Griffith. I'm keeping my copy, but I can't actually urge you to buy this piece of weirdness. Nonetheless, an experience so strange must be experienced at least once, so you should definitely give it a rental.
Current as of 4/23/2000
Official Site--Contains production notes, trailer, and multimedia.
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