Crazy in Alabama (1999)


By Anne Daugherty, rating: 5.0

Crazy in Alabama concerns two concurrent stories, which take place in small town Alabama in the mid ‘60s. One centers on the inhumanity and injustice of segregation, while the other tells of a woman following her dream, even though it means killing her husband and deserting her children to do so. Sure, both stories reveal craziness in Alabama, but they pull focus from each other. It’s difficult to be seriously caught up in the atrocity of segregation, when the “insane movie star” plot is so prominent. The stories come together through a lad called Peejoe, who acts as the narrator. When the story opens, Peejoe’s Aunt Lucille unceremoniously deposits her seven children at her mother’s house and drives off to California with the head of her husband in a Tupperware container on the backseat.

Why is Lucille crazy? A life of dangerous boredom has driven her to not only kill her husband, but also to decapitate him — it’s Helen Cixous’s “castration and decapitation theory” run amok. But where feminist theorist Cixous argues than a man’s power is threatened, he strikes out at something weaker than himself, often his wife, in Crazy in Alabama it’s the wife who is so enraged by her lack of power that she strikes out — literally decapitating her husband. In this sense, the film might be considered a feminist manifesto. But there’s a flippancy here that is uncomfortable. Rather than giving voice to female resistance to oppression, or even female creativity, Lucille comes off as an angry lunatic, bound for Hollywood to seek fame and fortune in the movies.

Peejoe shakes his head in admiration at Aunt Lucille, as if her insanity is inspired. But it is the second story that more closely involves Peejoe; a story of a different kind of craziness, and one he’s less impressed by. Call it apartheid, call it segregation, Peejoe calls it unfair. Whatever you call it, it becomes Peejoe’s problem when a black youth named Taylor, tries to swim in the town pool, only to be killed by the local sheriff. The pool is full at the time, but Peejoe is the only witness willing to come forward. These two stories parallel each other at first, but gradually their lines converge. Lucille is caught and brought home to face justice. The Sheriff offers Peejoe a trade-off: leniency for Aunt Lucille if he will hold his peace about Taylor’s death.

While the movie as a whole lacks dramatic thrust, I certainly enjoyed individual performances in Crazy in Alabama. Lucas Black plays Peejoe with an intensity only youth and innocence can muster. And the film really comes to life with the comic antics of Rod Steiger, who appears at the end of the film as the judge. However, by the time this yarn winds its way to court, most viewers will give up taking the movie seriously at all, and Steiger’s idiosyncrasies are the final straw. He is captured in many ridiculous moods and poses, which throws credibility to the wind, but makes for much entertainment. And I did chuckle when Sheriff Doggett, played stoically by Meat Loaf, opens the freezer lid to discover the body of Lucille’s husband. It was rather reminiscent of a scene in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, except Meat Loaf is on the other side of the ice.

Crazy in Alabama is not a great film. The issues at hand — the oppression of women and African-Americans are momentous, yet the comic relief of Steiger as pompous white judge is the most memorable scene. As a serious film, Crazy in Alabama doesn’t work. As comedy it has a long way to go, too. It lives somewhere in the never-never, in a category reserved for films where husbands direct and wives star, no matter what the cost.

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