Paradise muddled

For Larry Clark, the family that strays together stays together

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, no wonder. The ad hoc family of L.A. porn stars Burt Reynolds headed up in Boogie Nights could be first cousins to these desperadoes. 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.

"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. 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. Wagner (First Love, Last Rites), who is the daughter of Natalie Wood, is exactly the right counterpart to Griffith. Her Rosie is a wary survivalist who's already seen more than her share, 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.

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

 
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