Wednesday December 30, 1998

     Larry Clark's "Another Day in Paradise" detonates the same compelling yet disturbing charge as his first film, "Kids," and his celebrated photo essays, in particular "Tulsa," documenting outlaw teens caught up in sex and drugs. Now Clark has drawn upon ex-convict Eddie Little's novel, astutely adapted for the screen by Christopher Landon and Stephen Chin, to express the yearning for family ties within a crime spree plot.
     Not another bloody killers-on-the-run saga, you might well say. But such is the power of Clark and his colleagues that you're able to connect your own sense of ambivalence over the film to its central character, Mel, played by James Woods with ferocious wit, and to the film's profoundly ambivalent view of the American family as alternately nurturer and destroyer. The filmmakers are not about to let us get around the old truism that violence is as American as apple pie, but they do so in a complex way, juxtaposing it against a tenderness so raw and direct yet at times so ironic as to be darkly funny.
     "Another Day in Paradise" is as mercurial and reckless in tone as are its junkie characters, and Clark catches all these quicksilver shifts with unstinting perception and even compassion. As contradictory as it is energetic, the film takes as many risks as its people do and as a result strikes a highly contemporary nerve.
     "Another Day in Paradise" is "Bonnie and Clyde" for the '90s. Vincent Kartheiser's Bobbie and Natasha Gregson Wagner's Rosie are teen lovers, runaways from terrible families, holed up with other kids in an abandoned warehouse in an unnamed city. Bobbie survives by robbing vending machines with a screwdriver, and when he endures a savage beating from a security guard, his loft pal calls on his Uncle Mel, a career criminal, for help.
     Mel treats Bobbie's wounds and eases the pain with some of his best smack. Mel swiftly recruits Bobbie to help him on his next job, which propels Bobbie and Rosie on to the road with Mel and his lady Sid (Melanie Griffith).
     Lean and intense with a gift of gab, Mel sells Bobbie and, to an extent, us as well, about what a savvy crook he is. He's a tough taskmaster, but Bobbie sparks a paternal warmth and concern in him. Still glamorous for all the shooting up she does, Sid is even more maternal toward Bobbie and especially Rosie.
     Burgeoning emotional ties, the ruthless demands of high-risk thievery and the impact of drug-taking on judgment make for a volatile combination that leads to a finish that you think you can predict, but it plays out differently in its final moments of critical, character-defining choices.
     Woods and Griffith, between whom there is much electricity, are the kind of go-for-broke actors who continually come up with all sorts of fresh shadings and nuances along with depth and passion. "Another Day" represents a high point for both, and Kartheiser and Wagner express a wrenching vulnerability and naivete. The awful irony is that Mel and Sid, who are not exactly Ozzie and Harriet, as the reflective Sid points out, give them more parental love and affection than either has ever known.
     "Another Day" is like Todd Solondz's "Happiness" from earlier this year in its insistence on showing how closely intermingled our best and worst impulses can be. Clark presents it with an unnerving sense of absurdity that is embodied in the Reverend (James Otis), who is pure American Gothic, as fervent a preacher as he is an efficient gun supplier (and medic for wounded criminals). There's a zingy unbilled cameo by Lou Diamond Phillips as one of Mel's erstwhile partners, an outrageous but even more dangerous gay man.
     Cinematographer Eric Edwards captures images as memorable as Clark's photographs, production designer Aaron Osborne and costume designer Kathryn Morrison give the film its enticingly seedy road movie look, and a lot of rhythm & blues songs--soul singer Clarence Carter appears in the film--enhance the movie's strong sense of mood and pace. The film is no more violent in actual content than countless other movies but deliberately makes its violence as disturbing as possible.


Another Day in Paradise, 1998. R, for strong violence, sexuality, drug use and language. A Trimark and Chinese Bookie Pictures presentation. Director Larry Clark. Producers Stephen Chin, Clark, Woods. Screenplay by Christopher Landon and Chin; based on the book by Eddie Little. Cinematographer Eric Edwards. Editor Luis Colina. Music supervisors Howard Paar and Robin Urdang. Production designer Aaron Osborne. Set designer Cara Hoepner. Art director Eric Cochran. Set decorator Michelle Munoz. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. James Woods as Mel. Melanie Griffith as Sid. Vincent Kartheiser as Bobbie. Natasha Gregson Wagner as Rosie.