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Paradise Lost

Junkies on the lam take a trite track through reality

Halfway through Another Day in Paradise, a leather-clad Melanie Griffith hauls a rifle into a hotel room where a drug deal has just gone sour. She proceeds to shoot a bad guy between the legs and tells him she's nobody's bitch.

Apparently, the attempt is to shock, but it just provokes giggling from the audience. This is a running theme in Another Day in Paradise.

In his sophomore outing, director Larry Clark, best known for his tale of sex and drug-crazed New York City nymphets in Kids, takes ex-convict Eddie Little's novel to the screen. The result is an overdone portrayal of four junkie scam artists on the run. In an attempt to join such films as Trainspotting and True Romance, Clark instead unintentionally creates what is almost a satire of the modern shoot 'em up genre.

Set in the 1970s Midwest, Another Day is the story of two sets of Bonnie and Clyde. Sid (Griffith) and Mel (James Woods) are the veteran hustlers; Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser) and Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner) are their teenage proteges. At the start, Bobbie lives in squalor with Rosie and supports them by stealing change from vending machines. But after Mel and Bobbie meet and introduce their respective girlfriends to each other, the foursome gets involved in some high-level, violent drug deals and jewelry heists. Mel and Sid are the teachers, and Bobbie and Rosie are, at first, the eager pupils.

Over the next few weeks of living dangerously, Mel and Sid become a warped set of substitute parents to the teens. After a night of champagne-swilling, the adults tuck the drunken kids into bed. Later, Mel shows Bobbie the best kind of gun for his "delicate" and youthful hands. When Rosie gets worn out by the rough life, Sid puts down the heroin long enough to respond with a bowl of chicken soup and a heart-to-heart.

But instead of really examining the complexities of these unusual relationships, the story rapidly deteriorates into a slew of junkie cliches. There's a lot of greasy hair, fights in diners, cigarette smoking and long, dejected stares into the mirror. And after Mel asks Bobbie how old he is, it's tough not to choke back a laugh when Bobbie scowls and mutters, "Old enough." These moments replace what could have been deep explorations into why the characters have involved themselves in relationships that provide both love and abuse. Except for a flashback into Bobbie's violent childhood, none of these characters seems to have a past. Without it, many scenes come off as one-dimensional.

After a big-money deal falls through, Mel and Sid are forced to choose between keeping their pseudofamily together and continuing to run from the law. But the decisions they make are predictable, as is the ending of the film.

The younger actors are notably less experienced than their adult counterparts. Both Kartheiser and Wagner fail to generate sympathy in their roles as troubled kids. Wagner's job is apparently to look adorable and vapid in that heroin junkie kind of way. For most of the movie she prances around elflike in halter tops and clutches cigarettes. As the central character, Kartheiser's Bobbie is stilted. Although we can assume he is searching for a father figure in Mel, their relationship never progresses beyond the television sitcom level of intimacy.

Woods, always good as the bad guy, pulls off the bitter and focused Mel, but Griffith is the true bright spot in the film. This type of role is new for her, and her delicately aging beauty fits well with her part as world-weary gangster girlfriend. Despite her part as a tough girl, she maintains a certain sweet goodness. In one touching moment, Sid and Bobbie share a nap and a cigarette together, and she exudes an ethereal, maternal quality. You like her, and you get the feeling if she hadn't taken a wrong turn somewhere, she'd be great at shuttling the kids to football practice and kissing scraped knees.

But even her character is soon drowned out by cliches and, in the end, the movie stinks of warmed-over plot and dialogue. When Bobbie comes home to discover a strung-out Rosie shooting up smack, you realize all the necessary pieces are there: the seedy motel, Rosie's undernourished junkie body, the worn leather belt strapped around her arm. She wails and rants and throws a heroin-induced fit.

As you watch, you get the feeling that you've seen this somewhere else before. Unfortunately, the whole movie is like that.

Another Day in Paradise.
Rated R.
Directed by Larry Clark. With Melanie Griffith, James Woods, Natasha Gregson Wagner and Vincent Kartheiser.

 
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