DAY IN PARADISE (director: Larry Clark; screenwriters:
Christopher Landon/Stephen Chin/based on the book by
Eddie Little; cinematographer: Eric Edwards; editor:
Luis Colina; cast: James Woods (Mel), Melanie Griffith
(Sid), Vincent Kartheiser (Bobbie), Natasha Wagner
(Rosie), James Otis (Reverend), Lou Diamond Phillips
(Jules), Brent Briscoe (Nazi drug dealer); Runtime:
101; Trimark Pictures; 1998)
"It is only fun to watch in between heists..."
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This is a story about two sleazy drug addicted couples: the criminal pros are represented by the middle-aged Mel (James Woods) and his warm-hearted girlfriend Sid (Melanie Griffith). There's also the younger couple, being broken into the big time crime game, the teenagers Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser) and Rosie (Natasha Wagner). Yes. She is the daughter of Natalie Wood. These are not pleasant characters; they are sad and funny in a pathetic sort of way. Therefore what happens to them is not a primary concern of ours, except we might hope that there is a chance that the youngsters can be saved from their messed up start to life.
Violence will become the norm, from the film's gory opening till the end of their little escapade into the world of drug trafficking and heists. This romp down this tawdry road fits the acting style of James Woods to a tee, it seems as if he was born to play these over-the-top roles. This film is glued to its brutally violent story line. It is directed by someone who relishes sleaze, like some have pangs for Twinkies. You should therefore have a pretty good idea where this road movie is going to take you (Clark's previous movie was in the same gritty cinema verite style, "Kids"). It is even suggested by Sid in her more comic than gangster's voice as she plays with the younger couple, that we are in for a Bonnie and Clyde thing; and, she was right, to a certain extent. This is the '90s version of that infamous couple's story, just needing a bit more violence and some drugs to tell its tale.
The film opens with Bobbie leaving his girl's bed to break into some warehouse to steal quarters from a vending machine. A security guard catches him in the act and clubs the kid around, almost killing him. The kid pulls a knife on him and slits his belly open. The next shot we see is of Mel hunched over the kid's bed, treating his life-threatening wounds and shooting him up with some heroin. One of the kids watching this performance even thinks Mel might be a doctor, but Mel shoots back "that he's just a junkie and a good thief." The next thing we know is that Mel comes on really friendly to the kid he treated, telling the kid to call him "Uncle Mel," inviting the kid and his girl into his crime organization, telling him that he will teach him everything. He will elevate him in criminology. The kid very intelligently asks, why me? And Mel tells him, he can't take his sister's kid into the organization (he's the one that brought Mel in to treat Bobbie) because his sister would kill him for making her son a professional criminal; and besides, you're small, you're just right for the heist job I have planned for the drug clinic.
What comes next is a learning experience for the young couple, as the kids are treated as if they were full blown junkie grownups by their new surrogate parents. They are treated to champagne and fancy new clothes and lots of dope; but, the initial thrill of being a hood begins to change for these druggies, who basically would be content just to make love and do drugs. They are now heavily involved in a trip that is too much for them to really handle, as some of their deals turn real violent. The deal with Nazi-type motorcycle drug dealers starts off as comical in a sick way, as we hear some bad ethnic jokes and watch the deal these two gangs have turn rotten. Bobbie and Mel nearly get killed and after that, the kids want to get out but "Uncle Mel" has other plans, while Sid takes a maternal interest in the youngsters. She shares Rosie's joy in her pregnancy, while trying to stop feeling sorry for herself why she can't have children with Mel.
Realizing that this crime scene might not really be for them the kids ask to leave, but Mel says one more job; but, this is a job that doesn't smell right to Bobbie, as he is starting to regain some feelings about who he is. The job Mel has in mind is set up by this "flaming fag," Jules (Lou Diamond Phillips). The kid instantly detests him. As expected the job turns violently wrong, and things get grave for the two couples.
This hard-assed film is based on a prison work by Eddie Little. It is only fun to watch in between heists, when the couples interact, with Mel leading the witless wit by being a charming teacher and an unrepentant gangster with no sense of guilt about killing someone or having any reflections on his sordid life. Melanie is comical in her own right as the gun moll with a golden heart, who would do anything for her man but betray her surrogate son, Bobbie. The kids are druggie misfits, who find comfort in their love and deformities. Their sense of humor comes in small charges of underlying truths as they tag along mainly for the ride into big time crime, still too naive to comprehend their total situation.
The problem with the film, despite its authentically acted characterization, is that it is all so senseless. Fortunately, we are given one glimmer of hope in Bobbie who is last seen running through the cornfields with a wad of money on him, enough to dope himself up for a while or for him to get his act together and make something of himself. From what we can gather after getting a full dose of him in the film, we can only surmise that the kid had better get himself straightened out because a life of crime is not something that he has a natural affinity for. Since the film can only convey that Bobbie is the only one of the four characters who maybe has a chance of surviving and living to an old age, we can only hope that this kid with the angelic face can somehow make it on his own.
I recently saw James Woods on the Charlie Rose PBS TV show where he talked about his love for this film and belief in it, praising its independently directed efforts and sort of castigating the movie industry (Whenever I hear the term "movie industry", I feel a sense of revulsion. By using that term, one can only think in terms of it being a business and not an art) for not promoting this film and others like it that are honest efforts refusing to make formula type of commercial films. I can only concur with him, just wishing that an independent film doesn't necessarily have to always be youth orientated, anti-intellectual, or about drugs, or violence, or sex to sell itself. There are so many other themes out there that have not been so thoroughly explored as these themes have been, and therefore for me to really get on the bandwagon of an indie film means that I just want to see something different already. I am inundated up to my tired eyeballs watching films with the same themes differing only in the nuances and styles of their story, so that their originality comes inter-meshed with one another causing me to sometimes mistake one film for another. And I think that is the most critical thing that I can say about this often funny, mostly bleak, derivative film, that was credibly but not compellingly acted. In reality, it left no impact on me, it was too much like feeding on junk food and then realizing that you were still not nourished.
REVIEWED ON 3/24/99 GRADE: B-
Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"
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