Z To A: Another Day In Paradise (1998)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

Plot Synopsis: The new film from acclaimed director Larry Clark is a sexy and thrilling portrayal of a makeshift family of professional thieves on a cross-country crime spree.  James Woods and Melanie Griffith give outstanding performances as the scheming couple who “adopt” two young lovers (Vincent Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson Warner) into their renegade family in order to teach them the ropes of criminal life.

– From Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

Larry Clark has been on the art scene since 1971, but didn’t make his first feature until 1995.  By then he was fifty-two years old, but Kids was hardly the work of a pre-baby boomer.  It was (and still is) one of the most controversial films ever made, depicting underage kids drinking, doping, fighting and having unprotected sex in a seedy post-AIDS New York.  Since then he has carved a niche out of making unapologetically violent and sexual films, including Bully (2001), Ken Park (2002) and Marfa Girl (2012).  Some people consider him a fearless and boundary-pushing artist.  Others consider him a dirty old man with a camera.  I’d say both terms apply but one thing is for certain: you don’t forget a Larry Clark movie.

However, Another Day In Paradise usually slips through the cracks with nary a mention.  Why is that?

Paradise is Clark’s second feature and one of his more straight-forward narratives- a crime film, a road movie and a coming of age story all rolled into one.  It stars James Woods and Melanie Griffiths, who are the only leads Clark has cast over the age of thirty.  It also stars a pre-Mad Men Vincent Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson Wagner, who were eighteen and twenty-seven at the time of filming, respectively.  In fact, Kartheiser looked so young Clark refused to hire him until he produced a driver’s license.

The result is the most mature of Clark’s works, splitting screen time between Griffiths and Woods’ experienced criminals and Kartheiser and Wagner’s free-floating junkies, then pairing them off for individual scenes as the stakes gradually become higher.  And higher.  And then worse.

Paradise is about business, but not so much in the terms of legitimacy and money.  It’s more about choices and hunger, like the urgency that propels Harmony Korine‘s Spring Breakers (2012).  The film opens with Bobbie (Kartheiser) and Rosie (Wagner) sleeping in a dark, dilapidated room with hardly any possessions.  Bobbie wakes and lights a cigarette with an entire pack of matches, wasting them all.  It’s an impulsive move.  It also seems to be an act of recklessness, as if he’s using the last of what he has.

The set-up is that Bobbie is an amateur thief, taking off at night and breaking into vending machines.  But this particular night things go south; he crosses path with an overzealous security guard who nearly beats him to death.  By the time he gets home he’s barely able to walk and desperately in need of a doctor.  Enter Mel (James Woods), a friend of a friend who isn’t a doctor, per se, but knows enough to pack him in ice, shoot him up with heroin and tell him to lay low since the cops are looking for him.

Out of this a symbiotic relationship begins.  Mel reveals that he’s a big-time thief and could use some help with his next heist.  He recruits Bobbie to help him out for a cut of $10,000, which both Bobbie and Rosie leap at.  When things go well it isn’t long before Mel offers to take them on the road and show Bobbie the ropes of the criminal life.  Their next move is pulling off a heist that will “set them up for life.”

It’s here that the film veers away from the particulars of “business” and back to choices.  As everybody knows there is no such thing as a foolproof plan, especially when it’s being carried out by unpredictable people.  In this case it doesn’t take long to realize that these characters’ naïveté and ego are obstacles to pulling this off.

Secondly there’s the day-to-day drug use, which Clark captures with a dispassionate eye.  I’ve been told that heroin addicts have little interest in anything other than doing heroin, and that rings true here.  When you’re a drug addict your only problem is eventually getting more drugs, leaving you with little else to focus on.

But some people break the mold, which brings me to Mel’s longtime girlfriend Sid (Melanie Griffith), who is not only the smartest and most honest character in Paradise, but the most dependent on drugs.  In fact, Sid may be the most brilliant, high-functioning heroin addict I’ve seen onscreen- period.  Clark emphasizes her habit through stark, unflinching shots where she casually injects herself in the groin or the throat.  To this day I haven’t seen drug use depicted the same way since Permanent Midnight, which came out the same friggin’ year.  So that’s nearly two decades of these scenes not getting topped.Sid’s characterization is also a major part of why I love this film.  Her presence sets it apart from others in its genre- even the rest of Clark’s oeuvre.  She is a seasoned criminal and sympathetic mother figure, with impeccable survival skills to boot.  I’d argue that this is the most impressive performance of Melanie Griffith’s career, and along with her work in Cecil B. Demented (2000) she has done more than enough to ensure her reputation.  Sid is smart, resourceful and empathetic, using her own sense of morality to keep Mel in check.  He resists her at every turn, but it’s still believable that they have been together for a long time.  She is the only woman who can handle him in spite of how assured and difficult he is.

Woods brings his own bravado and unpredictability to his role, which suits the character perfectly.  Mel’s volatility upends several situations, which makes each interaction dangerous but a hell of a lot more interesting.  The problem is that Bobbie and Rosie are too young to know how risky these situations are until they’re living it.  And in spite of the fact that the four of them have developed into a makeshift family they remain two distinct couples.  One is jaded and experienced….

…while the other is completely unguarded and inexperienced.  This is all the more obvious when you take the film’s source material into account; in Eddie Little’s novel Bobbie is supposed to be fourteen years old.  Rosie is only seventeen.  How could they possibly know what lies ahead?

The longer these two couples are together, the more the contrasts deepen.  The film continues to edge toward questions of hunger and choices, particularly in the way the characters’ behavior deviate from what was the original plan.  At one point Sid (correctly) predicts that a business deal will go wrong, but Mel refuses to listen.  When it does, ensuing in beatdowns and a gunfight, two men are sent to kill her.  Instead they enter a world I like to call “being prepared and giving zero fucks.”  *sound of shotgun cocking*

(Side note: I’m not much for kills, but watching Griffith outwit these guys and protect herself would undoubtedly be high on my list.)

Sid is the only one who emerges unscathed, but the repercussions of this botched deal continue to ripple through the rest of the film, gradually building into a flash-flood.  Rosie miscarries her unborn child and admits to Sid that she “doesn’t want to do this anymore” after seeing the violence inflicted on Bobbie and everyone else.  The trauma is enough to make her overcome her aversion to needles and numb herself so she doesn’t have to hide how frightened she is.  Heroin helps makes this possible for her, erasing her feelings of wanting to escape and go home.

Bobbie isn’t as fortunate; nothing escapes his notice, which only makes things worse.  While still in it for the money he is beginning to understand just how determined and reckless Mel is, leading to a scene where he turns on Bobbie with full force.  The moment is surprising and raw, particularly because of how frightening Woods is and how Kartheiser reacts to him.  It was allegedly improvised, including several times where Woods struck and threatened his co-star.  After shooting it Kartheiser walked up to Clark and said, “I didn’t know that motherfucker was going to hit me.”

It could be said that Paradise is a cautionary tale about getting in over your head, which the final act lays out in all of its misfortune and ugliness.  Clark captures this with aplomb, reminding us that he’s a documentarian first and filmmaking comes second.  He has the uncanny ability to direct scenes that are startlingly realistic and frightening.  It’s a talent that’s rare to come by.  Very often when I watch films I’m aware of how they’re constructed.  Clark makes me forget that, and Paradise stands apart from the rest of his work because the strength of the characters are enough to convince me.  This isn’t only due to his style, but who he cast in the film.

The rapport between Woods and Griffith is worn in and palpable because they have worked together before- as supporting characters in Night Moves (1975) and a couple in the unfortunately titled Women and Men: Stories of Seduction (1990).  There are moments in Paradise where their interactions seem unplanned and real, especially when Mel becomes abusive, lashing out and attacking everyone.  Sid is the only one who tells him to shut up or attempt to put him in his place.

The truth was things weren’t much different off camera.  After filming Griffith likened working with Woods to childbirth: “In the beginning, you’re so happy and excited that you can’t believe you have this endeavor ahead of you. And then in the middle, you’re thinking, I might have made the biggest mistake of my life. And by the end, you just want it to be over with.”  Woods laughingly retorted: “I’ve heard her say that a hundred times and it makes me laugh every time. I tell her, ‘You always leave out the best part, which is that as soon as you’re done giving birth, 10 minutes later you can’t wait to do it again.'”

Kartheiser is also at home here, making his transition from family fare to arthouse and indie films like this and Crime + Punishment In Suburbia (2000).  The violence seems second nature to him, which retrospectively makes sense.  In an interview with Vulture he admitted he has been in multiple fights and suffered his share of beatings, commenting on the punchability of his face.  The violence inflicted on Bobbie seems natural because the actor had already been there.  Talking back and getting black eyes were second nature to him.

Wagner is perhaps the most neglected of the bunch, which suits her character.  She plays the innocent junkie archetype, a girl who ran from home and realizes she can’t turn back.  She’s seen too much and lost too much in a short period of time, making her suffering obvious but invisible.  Perhaps she stands in for the audience.  Most of us wouldn’t be able to process this kind of life, which isn’t proof of weakness but a testament of how little it takes for us to lose ourselves.

If anything, Clark drives that point home over and over again in his work, and will most likely continue to do so for the remainder of his career.  Still, I would recommend Paradise for being the most assured and complete of the bunch, just as worthy of watching as the others.  If you’re on the fence, I encourage you to give it a chance.

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