The panoramic tale of Savannah's eccentricities focuses on a murder and the subsequent trial of Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey): self-made man, art collector, antiques dealer, bon vivant, and semi-closeted homosexual. John Kelso (John Cusack), a magazine reporter, finds himself in Savannah amid the beautiful architecture and odd doings to write a feature on one of Williams' famous Christmas parties.
Kelso is intrigued by Williams from the start, but his curiosity is piqued when he meets the violent, young Billy Hanson (Jude Law), Williams' lover. Later that night, Hanson is dead, and Kelso stays on to cover the murder trial. Along the way he encounters the irrepressible The Lady Chablis, a transsexual stand-up comedienne; Sonny Seiler, lawyer to Williams, whose famous dog "Uga IV" is the official mascot of the Georgia Bulldogs; a man who keeps flies attached to mini leashes on his lapels and threatens daily to poison the water supply; Serena Dawes, a former silent-film actress; the Married Ladies Card Club; and Minerva, a spiritualist and voodoo practitioner.
Between becoming Williams' friend, cuddling up to a torch singer, meeting every eccentric in Savannah, participating in midnight graveyard rituals, and helping solve the mysteries surrounding Hanson's murder, Kelso has his hands full. The judge and jury later find Williams not guilty, much to the pleasure of Kelso and the witnesses. Williams congratulates Kelso on proving his innocence.
As depicted in the film, Williams suffers a heart attack and dies a week after the trial concludes. As he dies on the floor near where Hanson died from his wounds, Williams sees an apparition of the hustler in death, then momentarily alive. The camera cuts away from the scene, showing both Hanson and Williams dead and only a few feet from each other. Following the funeral and visiting Hanson's grave once more with Minerva, Kelso, Mandy and the Lady Chablis go off together for a picnic with Uga.
Several changes were made in adapting the film from the book. Many unused characters were eliminated or combined into composite ones. John Kelso was based upon Berendt. The multiple trials were combined into one on-screen trial. Williams' real life attorney, Sonny Seiler, played Judge White, the presiding judge of the trial. Advertising for the film became a source of controversy when Warner Bros. used elements of Jack Leigh's famous photograph in the posters without permission.
Principal photography began in spring 1997 Savannah, Georgia, where the entire film was shot. Several scenes were filmed in and around Monterey Square. Jim Williams' Mercer House is located on the southwestern end of the square, at 429 Bull Street where John Kelso is stays at the Italianate Comer House at 2 East Taylor Street, on the square's northeastern side; however, the shots from his windows were filmed on nearby East Jones Street, across from 115, which doubled as Joe Odom's house. (Odom's real house, constructed by Eliza Jewett in 1847, was at 16 East Jones.) Kelso's six-month rental, shown at the end of the film, is 218 West Jones Street, which is now valued at over $1.2 million.
The scenes at Williams' attorney Sonny Seiler's offices were filmed at the Armstrong House, 447 Bull Street, south of Monterey Square and close to the northern edge of Forsyth Park. As of March 2017, Seiler still practises there.
The courthouse scenes were filmed at the United States Bankruptcy Court, on the western side of Wright Square. Dixie's Flowers, the flower shop Mandy works at, is on the northeastern side of the square, on East State Street.
The residence used as The Lady Chablis' home is 418 East Liberty Street. The Myra Bishop Family Clinic she walks to is at the corner of Lincoln Street and East Liberty Lane.
Kelso has breakfast at Clary's Cafe, at 404 Abercorn Street. Photos of the cast taken during down time from filming are hung on the walls of the diner.
The Married Women's Card Club is at 126 East Gaston Street.
Churchill's Pub was located at 9 Drayton Street at the time of filming, but it burned down in a fire six years later. It is now at 13 West Bay Street.
The Debutante Ball was filmed at the now-defunct Savannah Inn and Country Club.
Bonaventure Cemetery, on the city's eastern edge, is featured on several occasions.
Forsyth Park, the venue for the dog-walking scenes, included the cameo appearance of Uga V, the English bulldog live mascot of the University of Georgia, playing his father, Uga IV. The Uga mascots live in Savannah between football games.
After location filming ended in June 1997, a fundraiser was held at and for Savannah's Lucas Theatre, which was built in 1921. Spacey donated $200,000 in Williams' honor to assist in the $7.6-million renovation of the theatre. "I love Savannah. I had a great time here," said Spacey, an Oscar winner in 1996 for his role in The Usual Suspects. "I plan to visit again. And once this (theater) gets done, I'll bring a play here." It was hoped that the movie's premiere would take place at the Lucas, but it was instead held on November 17 at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California.
The soundtrack for the film was released in 1997. It is also dedicated to Johnny Mercer. The CD includes versions of songs heard in the film.
The film became a failed box office, grossing $25.1 million to an estimated $30 million budget. It also received mixed reviews, with a 'rotten' score of 48% on review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes.