Paradise Muddled

For better or worse, the father figure in Larry Clark's ironically titled Another Day in Paradise turns out to be Mel, a foul-mouthed, 40-year-old junkie wearing a devil's-red tennis shirt. His notion of good counsel is showing his surrogate son how to disable the burglar alarm at a medical clinic so they can rob the place. For physical pain, this dad dispenses heroin. For mental anguish, there's grand larceny, accompanied by gunfire. Talk about tough love.

Director Clark, the former back-alley photographer whose 1995 film debut Kids unnerved audiences with its matter-of-fact portrait of adolescent sex, violence, and drug use, prides himself on stark realism and raw street poetry. No romantic illusions or phony moralizing for him. He means to strip the cruel world down to basics and shoot the results with his jittery, hand-held camera.

In this bloody, oddly comic tale set in the '70s, two hard cases, James Woods' Mel and Melanie Griffith's Sid, take in a pair of abused teen runaways (Vincent Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson Wagner) and hit the road in the Midwest -- an improvised family bent on getting high, robbing jewelry stores, and in its way, giving comfort to each other. Along the way they have some laughs, stumble into the usual crime-spree escalations, and begin to see that their journey is bound for a dead end.

If this sounds familiar, it's no wonder. The ad hoc family of L.A. porn stars Burt Reynolds headed up in Boogie Nights could be first cousins to the desperadoes we meet here. And every now and then a bleak whiff of Badlands or Natural Born Killers or Trainspotting passes through the proceedings. With Another Day in Paradise, Clark reveals again his gnawing concern for children growing up without parents to help them. Inevitably Sid and Mel will also be seen as Bonnie and Clyde on smack, careening from town to town in a black Cadillac. The baby-faced (but by no means innocent) kids in the back seat, Bobbie and Rosie, are along for the ride and pretty excited about it. But Clark makes sure they pay the price; in a world of broken families and shattered hopes, the film tells us, the best an abandoned child can hope for in the way of guidance is a mutant patriarch who will provide large-caliber weapons and pay for the motel rooms between burglaries -- as long as you can put up with his blind rages.

"You're already in the life, kid," the mentor tells his young charge. "You just need somebody like Uncle Mel to show you the ropes." Of course Uncle Mel doesn't show anyone the ropes out of the goodness of his heart. He not only needs an accomplice, he needs somebody to order around and, in his own rough way, to nurture. One of the screen's best actors for decades, Woods strikes just the right balance here between the joyful rush Mel gets from living on the edge and the danger this unstable sociopath presents to anybody in his orbit. As Bobbie, Kartheiser (Masterminds) manages a balancing act of his own between vulnerability and youthful swagger.

For the women things are a little different; sometimes it feels as if they're characters in a different movie. So strung out that she's reduced to finding usable veins in her neck, Sid is nonetheless presented as a failed mother type. Streetwise but kittenish, she innately understands the hazards faced by a girl who snorts meth and a lost boy who scores his drug money by breaking into vending machines. Griffith is not the subtlest actress on the planet, but this change of pace suits her well: In Sid's yearning and desperation, we imagine her adolescence, and it exactly mirrors poor Rosie's. For a stubborn realist, Clark has helped create an awfully sympathetic character in Sid. Wagner (First Love, Last Rites), who is the daughter of Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner, is exactly the right counterpart to Griffith. Her Rosie is a wary survivalist who's already seen and done more than her share, and yet she still can't quite subdue a certain schoolgirl enthusiasm.

Derived from a jailhouse novel by an ex-con named Eddie Little, the movie suggests to us that Mel and Sid, under different circumstances, might pass for pretty good parents. That's a nice idea, if not a very convincing one, and it comes close to violating the director's view about what a rotten place the world is. Meanwhile Another Day in Paradise trots out all the road-crime conventions -- big nights on the town, drug deals gone disastrously wrong, sudden gun battles with psychopaths. For a guy who clearly believes he's revolutionizing a genre, Clark sometimes plays it awfully straight.

How harsh and empty is life for Bobbie and Rosie? The director twice plunks them down, dumb-faced and dewy-eyed, in front of a TV set, the screen of which is filled with snow. They don't get the picture. They have no vision of life. There's no future. OK, but haven't we seen and heard all this before? The anxiety of life. The alienation. The failure of society to protect its children. The necessity of inventing new forms of intimacy because the old ones have broken down. Another Day in Paradise deserves high marks as a tough, mouthy movie salted with social ironies, blunt violence, and offbeat humor. But in the end it's just a bit preachy. And that's not the best thing for a moviemaker who doesn't care for sermons.

Another Day in Paradise.
Directed by Larry Clark. Written by Stephen Chin and Christopher Landon, from a novel by Eddie Little. Starring James Woods, Melanie Griffith, Vincent Kartheiser, and Natasha Gregson Wagner.

 
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