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Another Day in Paradise

Review by Eddie Cockrell
Posted 1 January 1999

  Directed by Larry Clark

Starring James Woods, Melanie Griffith,
Vincent Kartheiser, Natasha Gregson Wagner,
James Otis, Branden Williams, Brent Briscoe,
Paul Hipp, and Clarence Carter

Written by Christopher Landon and Stephen Chin,
from the unpublished novel by Eddie Little

There's nothing in the press material accompanying the ironically titled Another Day in Paradise explaining "Chinese Bookie Pictures," the presentation entity that gets top billing on the film print, but given the collaborative, improvisational nature and thrift store chic/outlaw milieu of the work, it's a safe bet that the co-producing alliance of co-screenwriter Stephen Chin (who produced Kids writer Harmony Korine's directorial debut, Gummo), photographer-turned-director Larry Clark (Kids) and actor James Woods were substantially inspired by The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) as well as the cinema verite aesthetic of its creator, legendary independent filmmaker John Cassavetes. And sure enough, like that fiery pioneer's most uncompromising -- and, to some, off-putting -- work, Another Day in Paradise is an often exasperating, certainly brutal and undeniably energetic look at a rural brand of thug life that is highly stylized precisely by virtue of its concentrated aversion to stylization.

In an American midwest of no defined time or place, young Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser) leaves his lover Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner) to make money the only way he seems to know how, cracking open some vending machines. Brutally beaten by a security guard with an unusual and tragic zeal for his work, Bobbie is nursed back to health in part by drugs furnished by his "Uncle" Mel (Woods). Seeing an opportunity to pass on the wisdom acquired during a life of crime, Mel enlists the boy and his girlfriend to join him and his squeeze, Sid (Griffith), as they embark on a series of cross-country capers. Their freewheeling life of crime comes to a violent head during a confrontation with effeminate tough Jules (an uncredited Lou Diamond Phillips), after which the surrogate family inevitably fragments.

Woods tackles the role with unrestrained glee, punctuating his gunplay and drug use with giddy shouts of "boo-yah!" and "badabing" to verbalize his nervous energy. Audiences may be struck yet again that the same actor who brings such a low-key intensity to mainstream work (he's won two Emmys and a Golden Globe) is able to keep a cork on the volcanic emotions on display here (and in the snarling, outspoken and shiny-eyed interviews he's given to the mainstream electronic press on the eve of the movie's release on a single Los Angeles screen). One of the small but durable band of charismatic and eternally dissolute malcontents that keep popular culture honest (think Tom Waits), Woods may be America's John Hurt -- except he seems to be in about four times as many films and TV shows.

Another Day in Paradise reunites Woods with Melanie Griffith, who made her big-screen debut as a conniving nymphet to his punk mechanic alongside Gene Hackman in Arthur Penn's sublime 1975 noir Night Moves (a little-seen but key film of that decade). As Mel's addicted girlfriend Sid, Griffith brings what shreds of moral consciousness surface during the saga, balancing some saving gunplay with a heartfelt plea to Rosie about her burgeoning addiction (the actress has called the movie "anti-drug" in at least one television interview). The movie offers her a clever opportunity to mold the sex kitten persona she's been saddled with into something new, and she turns in the best work she's done in a film since her stunning turn nearly five years ago in Robert Benton's Nobody's Fool.

Kartheiser and Gregson Wagner are more problematical in both character and performance, as their parts require them to act both naive and grown-up in response to the almost childish posturing of Mel and Sid. He's the more successful of the two, shedding the mainstream wholesomeness displayed in Alaska (1996) and Masterminds (1998) in favor of the rootless restlessness mixed with inarticulate yearning that is the heart of this type of material. Gregson Wagner, the daughter of Natalie Wood, has the movie's most mysterious and thankless role, and she brings to it the same vapid glaze utilized in Two Girls and a Guy, First Love, Last Rites, Urban Legend, and that bastion of vapidity, "Ally McBeal." Perhaps she can act; her next step might be a project in which she's given the chance. Together, they're fetishized to the point of discomfort with greasy hair, sunken eyes and general dirtiness often seeming more a fantasy of the filmmakers ("how old are you?" Mel asks Bobbie in a seemingly pointed reference to it) than an authentic expression of the realism sought by the movie.

The authentically grungy supporting players are rounded out by Phillips' bravura turn as the slimy Jules, Brent Briscoe from A Simple Plan as a racist cracker involved in one drug deal and James Otis as a wild-eyed, pockmarked man of the cloth who moonlights as a gun dealer.

Much of the film's look comes from Clark's early photographic work, particularly the 1971 book "Tulsa," which is said to be an inspiration for, among other movies, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy (with which it shares quite a bit, including the cinematographer, Eric Edwards). And if Another Day in Paradise feels more focused and confident than the distasteful and overhyped Kids, chalk that up to the Bonnie and Clyde elements of the story, the deliberate fuzziness of time and place, and the logical resolution of the sorry-assed crime spree.

The atmosphere is enhanced greatly by a superb rhythm and blues soundtrack that features a flurry of period songs by Otis Redding, Allen Toussaint, Willie Dixon, Sam Moore and Percy Sledge, supplemented by a new tune from Chocolate Genius and others -- and even two songs by Bob Dylan ("One More Cup of Coffee" and "Every Grain of Sand," the latter providing a fine underscore to the movie's coda). As an added bonus, there's a brief but exciting cameo performance by non other than Clarence Carter, who burns the roadhouse down as the entertainment in a drunken club scene early in the picture.

As staggeringly profane and exuberantly outspoken as the star it showcases, Another Day in Paradise, not surprisingly, often comes across and puerile and petulant -- like Cassavetes' often ugly excursions into the darker regions of human impulse, it dares us to care about these marginalized losers. Yet moviegoers who embrace Cassavetes' work, admire the intensity of Sean Penn and think that such recent movies as The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard and She's So Lovely are neglected contemporary masterpieces will find much to like in the skanky verisimilitude of Another Day in Paradise. The pursuit of brutal truths isn't a pretty journey, and in both story and execution the film offers no solace for those unwilling to take the hard ride.


Be sure to read Carrie Gorringe's report  on Another Day in Paradise from the Toronto International Film Festival.


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