PRINT January 1999


Larry Clark's Another Day in Paradise

STOP THE PRESSES: Heroin chic is back! In his seductive new film, Another Day in Paradise, director Larry Clark revisits the midwestern subculture of junkies and petty thieves documented in his seminal photo-essay Tulsa (1971). But the territory Clark pioneered three decades ago isn’t as wild as it once was. After the strung-out look’s brief reign in the mid-’90s (when Tulsa was the unofficial primer for cutting-edge fashion photography), what had once been alien and dangerous became just another disposable marketing pose. And there’s the rub: The specter of heroin chic haunts Paradise, which is undermined by a nagging sense that we’ve seen this all before. Gorgeous kids strung out in a fabulously tacky ’70s motel room? Wasn’t that an Ellen Von Unwerth spread in W?

Based on the novel by Eddie Little, Another Day in Paradise follows the exploits of a small band of charming, smack-addicted thieves as they chase the elusive “big score” and indulge their taste for drugs of all kinds. Mel (James Woods) and Sidney (Melanie Griffith) are smart, world-weary outlaws who have been around the block (and around and around again). To help pull off a major heist, they adopt a couple of scrawny-sexy-cool teenage junkies, Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser) and Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner). Family values predictably blossom against a backdrop of brutal violence and desperation made illusorily bearable by the occasional, narcotic-enhanced good time.

The outlaw gang as dysfunctional family is by now a well-worn conceit, but Clark’s subtle insight into, and unromanticized fondness for, his characters elevates his telling of the tale above the tale itself. His personal investment in the material is infectious, intensifying the sense of urgency that propels the narrative. If, in the end, the film fails to achieve high-critical mass, it nevertheless succeeds as a conventional exercise in storytelling, as the strained theatrics of Clark’s first feature, Kids (1995), are mercifully absent. And Paradise is incredibly beautiful. Clark’s poetic images and spare compositions, which ennoble the subject without glorifying it, rescue his enterprise from the clutches of Hollywood cliché.

Paradise benefits from uniformly strong performances. Melanie Griffith hasn’t been this compelling since Working Girl. Her tough, sincere portrayal of Sidney—courageously played without the aid of the age-defying makeup she advertises—rescues the actress from the dustbin of irrelevance and Golden Globe nominations to which she has been condemned in recent years. Building on the role he played with such convincing sleaziness in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995), James Woods animates the scheming drug addict Mel with charisma and emotional complexity. The prettiness of the two younger leads, which might have diluted Clark’s gritty realism, is tempered by solid performances that evoke a real sense of confusion and fear. And in a brilliant cameo as a queeny Latino viper, Lou Diamond Phillips manages to be interesting for the first time in his career. That, Mr. Clark, is an accomplishment.

Mayer Rus is the editor of Interior Design magazine.