Half an hour or so into "Another Day in Paradise," I asked myself: Will the movie be this much fun when things start going sour? Because it's a given that the four junkie hoods in Larry Clark's new picture aren't going to spend the entire movie shopping and partying. But even when the blood starts to spurt, Clark doesn't lose his sense of humor. He's malicious but affectionate, and that makes him the director that these likable creeps -- likable monsters, really -- deserve.
Clark's first movie, "Kids," was about juvenile monsters, and he liked them, too. As far as I can tell, there were two possible reactions to "Kids": You could admire its unflinching gaze, or you could be revolted. I loathed it. But (like many others) I'd been impressed, a little uneasily, by Clark's earlier photographs, especially the two collections for which, until "Kids," he was best known, "Tulsa" (1971) and "Teenage Lust" (1983).
These pre-Nan Goldin celebrations of the scuzzball life are appallingly prurient, with their images of syringes and youthful hard-ons, but they're beautiful, too, in a druggy, deadpan, highly aestheticized way. "Kids" wasn't deadpan at all -- it was out to shock (this is what our children have come to!), and that surprisingly square intention, coupled with blatant pedophilia, made the whole package nauseatingly offensive.
"Another Day in Paradise" is a less ambitious movie, devoid of statement or of any but the most primitive moral judgments. (It's much more like Clark's photographs.) Basically the picture is just a loose study of two middle-aged junkie thieves, Mel (James Woods) and Sid (Melanie Griffith), and their teenage protigis, Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser) and Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner), on a crime spree. Clark includes several shots of things that most of us would just as soon not scrutinize (needles jabbing into flesh, for starters), but the way he's lit them -- gorgeously -- they hold your eye. (His fine cinematographer is Eric Edwards, who also shot "Kids" and a couple of Gus Van Sant movies, as well as "Flirting with Disaster" and "Copland.") The body count seems bigger than anything these losers ought to be capable of, but the violence is brisk and clean -- something to move the story along but not to savor.
And that's just as well, considering the dubiousness of Clark's other fixations. As a pornographer, he's the obverse of Bruce Weber. He doesn't dream of gods; his ideal is scrawny kids with bad skin. (The kids here, perhaps in a nod to the romance of the medium, have ice-cream skin, but he does get some nice effects from bruises.) The movie includes its predictable share of boys-in-their-underwear setups, which can make you squeamish precisely because they're so appealing (you respond in a way you'd rather not); they hover somewhere between pretty and salacious.
The movie also has a wonderful script, rueful and funny, based on a crime novel by an ex-convict named Eddie Little. But its biggest advance over "Kids" is in its performances. I would never have expected Clark to turn into an actors' director, yet nobody overplays, nobody underplays and nobody hits a false note. Woods, an actor who doesn't know how not to be riveting, gives the performance of his life as Mel, a Jewish career criminal who's smart, funny, moody, needy, calculating, crazy, emotional and fundamentally indecent. Even at his most extravagant, though, Woods is generous: He never stops connecting with the other actors; he doesn't upset the balance of the ensemble.
And while Griffith's kewpie-doll number may be familiar, she brings out a deep pathos in the fundamentally decent Sid without ever skirting corniness. You can see how having these pathetic kids around elicits something parental in Mel and Sid -- how it appeals to their fantasy of themselves as the suburban couple that might have been. They're adults, though, and, unlike the kids, they have neither illusions nor hopes about their crummy lives. But they do have fantasies, and their fantasies, oddly enough, make them better people. Bobbie and Rosie, for their part, are even sadder in their emotional hunger, their helpless readiness to respond to the older couple -- who give them something their terrible parents never did -- even when it's fairly clear they're being conned.
Clark related in "Tulsa" that he started shooting amphetamine when he was 16. The deadbeat culture of drugs was his youth, and it'll always have a place in his heart. Most people don't share his obsessions (thank goodness), but obsessions are something an artist can't do without. Within the rather narrow range that Clark has set for himself here, I can't find much of anything he's done wrong. "Another Day in Paradise" doesn't have the necessary expansiveness or the depth of theme to qualify as a great movie or even a near-great movie, but in its trashy, pessimistic way, it's just about perfect.