This is the kind of stuff you really don’t want dragged into your living room.
On the other hand, an overwhelming share of our fellow citizens have living rooms which echo the reality of Life Is Hot In Cracktown every stinking night. And it’s not much of a living.
Right out of the starting gate, Life Is Hot In Cracktown is in your face, with Romeo and his gangbanging buddies literally gang-raping one of their schoolmates. And even if you can stomach this early going, the film only gets rougher from there. This is not the ersatz, sanitized seaminess of Short Cuts or Hustle and Flow. It’s not even the trashy L.A. of Bukowski-inspired visions like Barfly or Factotum, nor the stylized mean-ish streets of In America or Last Exit To Brooklyn. And it’s not into entertaining you, really, in the ways that Boyz n the Hood, Deep Cover, or Boondock Saints did.
No, in fact the best comparison would be a more hopped-up West-coast version of Scorsese’s Mean Streets or Taxi Driver as rethunk by Altman—which is not surprising, given that writer-director Buddy Giovinazzo cites neo-realist Luchino Visconti, one of Scorsese’s models, as an influence. (Why Giovinazzo doesn’t cite Scorsese is a little puzzling, though, given the New York streets the two shared as inspiration.)
In addition to Romeo’s druglord-aspiring thugs, the storyline also follows young father Manny, who works as a convenience store clerk and hotel desk security officer, and comes home every night to his isolated housewife and crying infant while dreaming of liberation from their seedy flat; transgender candidate Marybeth, who hooks tricks and juggles heroine with her marriage to good-hearted but lowbrow burglar Benny; and young Willy, a ten-year-old often left to care for his little sister while Mommy and her no-good boyfriend search for one more high after another.
Wow. Kinda makes you wish for an episode of Leave It To Beaver, doesn’t it?
Hopeless Vision Reflects Reality
But that’s precisely the point, I think. I was surprised to learn that the story is merely inspired by Giovinazzo’s tenure in Manhattan’s lower eastside rather than being actually autobiographical in some respect. It’s rare that a film with A-list talent like Brandon Routh, Kerry Washington, and Ileana Douglas delves into such depravity without being glossed in some way. And while it’s possible that much of the heartbreak that is Cracktown is phony—I wouldn’t really know—it feels much more true to life than most of its cinematic siblings. In part, that’s because Giovinazzo’s tiny rays of light don’t drown out the darkness. This is a relatively hopeless vision that accurately and sadly reflects the ways in which far too many of our poorest citizens live.
The most stirring thread in this story is delivered by young actor Ridge Canipe, who portrays Willy. Isolated and burdened with responsibility long before his time, Willy looks out on the street as hotel security throws out a resident who’s behind on rent. "He’s fightin’ to get in," he laughs to sister Suzie. "He should be fighting to get out." Darned straight, kid. The only friend Willy has is twenty-something crackhead Sizemore, whose idea of fun with a ten-year-old is going to "check out the hos." Later, he suggests, they can "go through the dumpsters." Willy is used to getting whacked around by Mommy’s boyfriend, begging for food money, and worrying endlessly about Suzie’s fate. He’s got a crush on teen hooker Melody, who’s pimped by her mother—and at the film’s conclusion is faced with a choice of staying to protect Suzie or following Melody to the, um, land of Goshen. And there’s your slim ray of light. The other three story lines don’t play out so rosily.
Keep an Air Sickness Bag Handy
While this movie may realistically portray "creatures from another Unisphere," as the crack-addled Benny puts it, its real weakness is that it provides the audience with nary a handle on entry into that world. If you fail to identify with Willy, and you just don’t know any of these characters in your own experience, I imagine you’ll find the film nothing but dismaying and repulsive. If you’re interested in a slice of this life, but one a little more accessible without being sanitized, I recommend The Dead Girl or Alpha Dog… but even then, you may want to keep an air sickness bag handy.
This is bold, personal filmmaking of the kind I’m not sure "I liked it" or "I hated it" are at all relevant assessments. But it requires bold, broad-minded viewer discretion, too. Be advised.
Life Is Hot In Cracktown is rated R for strong violence, rape, drug content throughout, graphic sexuality, nudity, and pervasive language. Yup. The MPAA didn’t miss a thing. Have a clue and don’t see this with your kids unless they are very, very mature… and you’re prepared for a serious debriefing session after.
Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Life Is Hot In Cracktown.
Greg Wright is Managing Editor of both Past the Popcorn and Hollywood Jesus. An ordained pastor, Greg is the author of Tolkien In Perspective: Sifting the Gold from the Glitter (2003) and Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (2004). A widely-known lecturer on Tolkien, Lewis, film, and fantasy, Greg resides in the Seattle area with his precious wife Jenn and their two cats, Grynne and Bearrett.