John Kelso (Cusack) is a young writer from New York who has been sent to Savannah on behalf of Town and Country magazine to cover a very prestigious Christmas party. This elegant, lavish and stylish event is given each year by Jim Williams (Spacey), one of Savannah's most prominent and colorful citizens.
Williams is an antiques dealer, collector and restoration specialist who has built his wealth through the reconstruction and sale of the numerous 18th and 19th century homes which elegantly frame the city's historic squares. His own home, Mercer House, is located on the corner of Monterey Square and was built in 1860 by General Hugh Mercer, whose great-grandson was popular songwriter Johnny Mercer. The house is an elegant, stately Southern mansion.
John Kelso's assignment seems straightforward. He will simply immerse himself in Savannah's gracious Southern atmosphere and describe the colorful history of Mercer House. He will highlight the party preparations and Jim Williams' exclusive guest list. Finally, he will attend the elegant black-tie event and report on the festivities.
Unfortunately, things don't quite work out that way.
In a sequence of events set in motion following his courtly Christmas party, Jim Williams is arrested for murder. Claiming self-defense, Williams has shot and killed his live-in lover, Billy Hanson (Jude Law), who, it seems, had a history of irrational, often violent behavior.
John Kelso's Town and Country magazine article soon evolves into a book about a startling murder trial in an unexpected setting, with Kelso the outside observer, though not quite the objective eye he hopes to be.
Williams, now jailed, sets up his office in his cell and calmly continues to do business. He is certain that a jury of his peers, aware of Billy Hanson's explosive, unconventional behavior, will find Williams innocent on the grounds of self-defense. But Savannah is wrestling with the question of who Williams' peers might actually be. Are they the neighbors who hoped each year for the richly engraved invitation to Williams' annual Christmas soiree, or are they a far less conventional group?
Over the coming months, Savannah provides the stage for a morality play generated by Williams and reflected through some of the city's more eccentric inhabitants. The situation becomes increasingly entangled, as gossip and Savannah's unique approach to social disorder and problem-solving leave their stamp on events.
Williams' attorney, Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson) is the man leading the defense. The case is a daunting proposition for Sonny during football season, since Seiler is a rabid fan and the proud owner of Uga, bulldog mascot to the University of Georgia football team. University of Georgia victories and losses on the gridiron have a way of influencing Seiler's effectiveness in the courtroom; fortunately, a win over Notre Dame comes at a pivotal moment in the trial.
Joe Odom (Paul Hipp) is a free-spirited ex-attorney who enjoys house-sitting for absentee Savannah homeowners, charging tourists to walk through the period properties he's temporarily occupying and celebrating the process at all hours of the day and night with liquor, song and lodging for his friends. Odom is an observer of Jim Williams' life, friends and behavior, both before and after "The Incident," as it comes to be described.
Mandy Nichols (Alison Eastwood) helps Kelso sharpen his perspective on Savannah's social climate and wildly divergent citizens. One of the tenants in Odom's part-time residence, Mandy meets Kelso in a quest for ice at 2 a.m. and invites him to the party. She is an independent, clever girl, whose honesty, attractiveness and down-to-earth advice are a great help to Kelso as he tries to unravel the many layers of Savannah's social structure.
Then there is Minerva (Irma P. Hall), a voodoo priestess brought in by Williams to help bolster his defense. John Kelso discovers that Minerva conducts her business just before and after midnight in Savannah's Bonneventure cemetery, all of which somehow seems appropriate. What better place to influence the outcome of a trial than the cemetery's mystery-shrouded garden of good and evil?
And finally, there is The Lady Chablis, a transvestite singer-performer whose completely unique viewpoint on Savannah's social and personal activities forms a startling counterpoint to everything else that John Kelso hears and sees. Through the flamboyant chatter and occasional pungent, witty truth told by The Lady Chablis, Kelso comes to understand more than he'd expected about the souls of men and women -- and what will be Jim Williams' fate.
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