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Billy Wirth's MacArthur Park is yet another drug-community drama that seeks to personalize the travails of people existing on the fringes of society, in this case homeless crackheads in Los Angeles. The titular park is home to a wide variety of outcasts, from the perpetually tweaked nut-job to the semi-functional former family man. (One character wryly calls it the place "where everybody knows your name.") There are smooth operating dealers and pimps and fast-talking, wild-eyed con-men. All are character types we've seen before but there's an honesty to the acting and writing that helps at least make MacArthur Park interesting to watch.
The film follows a number of the park's inhabitants through their own stories. None of the individual stories is anything special on its own: There's Cody (the excellent Thomas Jefferson Byrd) who has the opportunity to reunite with his college-bound son; Blackie (Miguel Núñez) who rips off - and pisses off - a rich white actor (Balthazar Getty) who's coming apart at the seems; and Linda (Sydney Tamiia Poitier, daughter of legend Sidney) as a wide-eyed young girl who accidentally falls in with the MacArthur Park crowd by way of smooth talking E-Max (Sticky Fingaz), who starts her on crack for no other reason than to amuse himself.
These stories are as old as dirt and if the film had to float on their merits it would be a total dud. But the majority of the weird, huge cast (which also includes Ellen Cleghorne, Julie Delpy, David Faustino, Cypress Hill's B-Real, Lori Petty, Glenn Plummer, and, in a cameo, "Stacey's Mom" A.K.A. Rachel Hunter) does nice work.
There's relatively little bug-eyed obviousness for a film with crack pipes in nearly every scene. And a few weird, unexpected moments, including a somewhat shocking ode to The Deer Hunter, keep you on your toes. Still, in the end this is one of those movies that so unremittingly grim that it hurts its ability to really move an audience: When one character meets a tragic end at the exact moment when his future is most wide open it's so obvious that it isn't really upsetting. This scene may in fact be based in reality, but it's so perfectly timed that it feels straight outta Hollywood.
If MacArthur Park does feel extra legit it might be because the original script was written by Tyrone Atkins, a former crack head and member of the park's scene. While it was worked over by at least three other writers before hitting the screen, the film does seem to retain a lived-in sense of place that's true to the characters and their world. The Cody character, who at one point echoes Casablanca's Rick Blaine in his ambivalence ("I don't stick my neck out for nobody"), is based largely on Atkins' own experiences and the fact that he lived to tell it is testament that a dead end is sometimes not quite so final. The film itself, however, isn't as transporting an experience for the viewer perhaps as it was for the writer.
The video is wide-screen, but not anamorphic. It's kind of dull and indistinct. Not terrible, but by no means a crystal clear showcase image.
The Dolby surround soundtrack is pretty good, but also nothing spectacular. It gets the job done.
There are couple of nice features. First, director Billy Wirth shares his commentary track with writer Tyrone Atkins and lead actor Thomas Jefferson Byrd. This really helps the track avoid being yet another indie director going on and on about camera set-ups. Instead it ends up being a lively discussion on the film and its origins that is quite enjoyable. It's especially nice that Byrd, who, with his grizzled image, has played dark roles in films like Clockers finally gets a chance to play at being a lead. It's nice to hear his thoughts on the film.
Similarly, the "Making of" segment is more in-depth than most, including a good deal of behind the scenes footage as well as footage of Atkins meeting his own son for the first time in years, something that parallels the film in a moving and real way. Good stuff.
A trailer is also included.
MacArthur Park is a well-meaning film that doesn't quite rise above its genre but is surprisingly engaging. While I never felt like I was seeing something new I also found myself at times getting lost in the characters and situations, something that's increasingly rare after watching so many movies.