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Junkie Food

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 forty-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 1970s, two hard cases, James Woods's 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. As they travel, 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 that Burt Reynolds headed up in Boogie Nights could be first cousins to the desperadoes we meet here. Every now and then, a bleak whiff of Badlands or Natural Born Killers or Trainspotting passes through the proceedings. And Clark again reveals 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 backseat, Bobbie and Rosie, are along for the ride and pretty excited about it. But Clark makes sure they pay the price, too. In a world of broken families and shattered hopes, it says here, 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, but he needs somebody to order around and, in his own rough way, to nurture. One of our 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 like they're characters in a different movie. So strung out that she's reduced to finding usable veins in her neck, Sid is nonetheless 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 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 here. Wagner, who is the daughter of Natalie Wood, is exactly the right counterpart to Griffith: A wary survivalist who's already seen and done more than her share, Rosie 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 under different circumstances, Mel and Sid 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, 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 whose screen is filled with snow. They don't get the picture. They have no vision of life. There's no future. Okay, 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. Screenplay 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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