Another Day in Paradise


In 1995 the photographer and documentarian Larry Clark hit the world of feature films with a guided missile called "Kids." "Kids" was about a group of teens in the Bronx who lived desperate lives fueled by dope, alcohol, and petty theft. It was fiction, and it was played by actors, but it, and they, were so realistic that audiences cried and screamed at the violations of bodies and souls they saw on the screen.

For his second feature, Clark has switched gears, sort of, with Another Day in Paradise. This is a film that's also fueled by dope, alcohol, and theft, but this time it's grand theft, and this time there's wit and even love to give an underpinning to what we see on screen. And what do we see? We see James Woods and Melanie Griffith as junkies and thieves, longtime lovers, driving their old Cadillac from heist to heist. They're cool, they're smart, they're successful. Early on they pick up two teenagers, already a couple, already junkies, and already living on theft -- Vincent Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson Wagner -- because Woods needs Kartheiser's guts and physical litheness to pull off a big job stealing major quantities of drugs from a physicians' clinic -- a job that will net them many thousands of dollars.

Clark has powered the first half of the movie with a great R&B music score and a light, witty touch that takes this unlikely foursome through their early scores. The youngsters are so appealing -- Gregson Wagner reminds us of Winona Ryder in her earliest films -- that we almost want to adopt them. Griffith even thinks of them as the children she herself can't have.

And then the film turns darker as Woods begins to disintegrate. There's a paranoia underlying the wit and assurance, and it begins seeping out through the cracks in his façade. He starts making bad judgments and covering them up, with increasingly bad results. Woods has always been an amazing screen actor -- one of the few who has the magnetism to take over a scene and compel a response from the audience. I've always loved his performance in the 1989 "True Believer" as the burned-out civil-rights lawyer, in his little office over the newsstand in Sheridan Square, with his great line to the starry-eyed young lawyers who've come to him for help -- "This isn't fucking Yale Law School here!" No other actor could have delivered that with all its meanings set out for us like our own introductory course in law.

Clark's direction here is surehanded and cool, and he is helped immeasurably by the cinematography of Eric Edwards, who also photographed "Kids." It's obvious that Clark gave Edwards his head in composing shots and moves, some hand-held and some not, that make this film at least as compelling visually as the more commonly cited "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Thin Red Line." Of the three, the photography and lighting and composition here is the least self-conscious and the most appropriate to its story and characters. All in all, this sleeper of a film -- doomed to fail at the box office -- is perhaps the most rewarding.