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MOVIE REVIEW : Solid Stars but ‘Milk Money’ Stretches Premise Too Far

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If there’s one star who’d be a safe bet for getting away with playing an archetypal hooker with a heart of gold, she’d have to be Melanie Griffith.

In “Milk Money,” as in “Shining Through,” Griffith has a mix of vulnerability, dignity and moxie that persuades you to believe in her no matter what. Here, she has a strong assist from Ed Harris in a distinctively different kind of role for him, but they and director Richard Benjamin don’t get much help from first-time screenwriter John Mattson.

Harris has got to be just about the nicest guy in the world, a science teacher desperately trying to save some wetlands near his Pittsburgh suburb and single-handedly raising his 12-year-old son (Michael Patrick Carter), whose mother died during his birth.

Carter and his pals (Brian Christopher, Adam LaVorgna) have reached the age when they think it’s high time they see a woman naked. A couple of plot maneuvers later, Griffith not only winds up the woman they hire but also on the lam, staying in Carter’s treehouse. Pretty much from the get-go Carter thinks Griffith would be the perfect mother for him and the perfect wife for Harris.

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Obviously, this premise for a comedy with both romantic and adolescent angles is a bit of a stretch, to put it mildly. It needs all the shoring up it can get, but Mattson instead keeps on stretching its credibility, throwing in some underworld caricatures (which wastes such stalwarts as Malcolm McDowell and Philip Bosco) and a number of crude, tasteless moments.

Benjamin brings to the film a graceful buoyancy and a perceptive affection for its key people that holds it together. But when it comes to hooker fantasies, “Milk Money” doesn’t remotely possess the resiliency and punch of “Pretty Woman.”

Since the producers went for the best in such key assignments as cameraman (David Watkin), production designer (Paul Sylbert) and costume designer (Theoni V. Aldredge), it’s hard to understand why they didn’t bring in a seasoned writer to bolster the script.

That’s too bad, because the chemistry between Griffith and Harris is just as potent as it was between Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. Benjamin plays for strength, which lies in the relationships between father, son and prostitute, and in the contrast between the brassy Griffith and the film’s idyllic Norman Rockwell suburban setting. But only the least demanding audiences can be expected to buy into “Milk Money.”

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* MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual themes and situations involving adolescents. Times guidance: Although no sex takes place between the prostitute and the boys, the film put considerable emphasis on sexuality and has a scene of considerable sexual innuendo.

‘Milk Money’

Melanie Griffith: V

Ed Harris: Dad

Michael Patrick: Carter Frank

Malcolm McDowell: Waltzer

A Paramount presentation. Director Richard Benjamin. Producers Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall. Executive producers Patrick Palmer, Michael Finnell. Screenplay by John Mattson. Cinematographer David Watkin. Editor Jacqueline Cambas. Costumes Theoni V. Aldredge. Music Michael Convertino. Production designer Paul Sylbert. Set designer Antoinette J. Gordon. Set decorator Casey Hallenbeck. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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