Another Day in Paradise is the decidedly grungy tale of Mel (James Woods) and Sid (Melanie Griffith), two crooks who 'adopt' a pair of young lovers, Bobbie (Vincent Kartheiser) and Rosie (Natasha Gregson Wagner). This makeshift, highly dysfunctional family's home life consists of stealing, drug dealing and being constantly on the lam. Volatile Mel holds sway over this crew, who are victimized by his ever-changing mood swings and rage.

While watching this, you might feel as though you've seen it all before and you have. It's Drugstore Cowboy, devoid of wit-an unlikely family film laced with pharmaceuticals-with the emphasis on bloodletting and, this being a Larry Clark opus, the undraped bodies of nubile adolescent boys. (The queasy homoeroticism that was such an unsettling factor in his exploitative, overrated Kids is given full vent here.) Thankfully, it's a much better, less calculating film than Kids, and shows off Clark's marked visual sense, which finds a weird lyricism in the grimiest of circumstances. Downmarket motel rooms, greasy spoons, seedy bars and waving fields of grain all have a distinctive, painterly aspect. (The film is meant as a sort of live-action version of Clark's photo essay, 'Tulsa,' a fave of the desperately trendy/Nan Goldin-style, museum coffee-table book-giving set.) It's just too bad that the script, adapted from a novel by ex-con Eddie Little, is so flat and uninventive. Clark relies largely on what appear to be actors' improvisations. Here, Woods steps to the fore and rants, bellows, wheezes and snarls in a way to give even young Vincent Gallo pause. It's a performance calculated to impress and it may well have, had he only been given some really pungent lines to deliver. As it is, it's exhaustive but exhausting, and fairly turns this intelligent, always challenging actor into a self-caricature. Griffith, however, does better, and rather blooms in her best outing in years. By this time, it should be obvious that the demands of playing an upright, undercover policewoman (A Stranger Among Us) or WWII secret agent (Shining Through) are quite beyond her. No, this dippy comedienne is best at raffish roles which allow her to display her smeary comic snap and killer legs. (She's a total joy sending herself up in the largely unknown comic delight, In the Spirit.) Sid is rich in such opportunities and Griffith is an ideal pistol-packin' mama, her baby voice and infantile manner belying her handiness with a 45.

It's Kartheiser, though, who's the real gem. With his Botticelli face and skeletal frame, he's a natural camera subject (and undoubtedly a source of untold directorial inspiration). He manages to give a richly felt, moving performance that rises above the script's shoddiness. The role is a total cliche-i.e., old, raddled soul in a boy's body-but Kartheiser's pure talent refreshes it and makes you care. Wagner's very peripheral, underwritten role is a total reprise of Heather Graham's doomed junkie in Drugstore Cowboy, and it sinks her. (She's inherited the dark wiriness of her mother, Natalie Wood, as well as her somewhat jerky acting style.)

The big shoot-'em-up finale takes place in some murky gay environs that have an appropriate rough-house, blowsy feel to them, miles away from the more 'p.c.' fern bar, yuppified, same-sex watering holes usually featured in movies. But then, to his eternal shame, Lou Diamond Phillips pops up, mascara-ed, bedizened and cholo-accented, to deliver a performance that defines offensive stereotype (and combines at least three of them). The actor may have thought he was making a brave, histrionic leap with this daring (uncredited) indie turn; too many years of L.A. smog and meetings may also have deadened his brain.

--David Noh