'Milk' makers should pay us to look

August 31, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Now and then really smart, talented and beautiful people get together and make a movie that is literally astonishing in its putridness. "Milk Money," for example, happily taxes the vocabulary of contempt -- beyond metaphor, beyond simile, beyond existential dread, a movie so scorched and worthless it's a tribute to human folly.

Is this a great country, or what?

Anyway, "Milk Money" is sort of the "Natural Born Killers" of prostitutes-with-a-heart-of-gold films -- a high-water mark in excess, undirected by discernible intelligence and wholly unguided by moral principles.

Its fundamental astonishment is the blackness of the themes it ++ unleashes in a tone of such utter blinkered innocence. It's not a black comedy that means to use outrage as its engine, for that, of course, would take a sophisticated wit. Rather, "Milk Money" is a simple farce that trafficks in the outrageous without understanding for a second that it's outrageous. It raises tastelessness to a new level; it's some kind of breakthrough on the Hollywood squalor front.

The rapidly sinking Melanie Griffith and the already sunken Ed Harris star as the prostitute and a romantically clueless high school science teacher, who give new meaning to the old movie phrase "meet cute." You want cute? Here's cute, '90s-style: They are united as a coosome twosome when his son, 10-year-old Frank (Michael Patrick Carter), pays her $100 in milk money to show him her breasts. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. One. Two. Ah, romance!

The framing story is more repellent still. Frank and two cohorts have ventured from a sylvan suburb of Pittsburgh to that evil zone known as "downtown," where they seek some form of sexual initiation -- not actual carnal knowledge, but more a theoretical introduction. They mean to pay a "bad woman" to show them herself unclothed.

In the movie's first few moments, these three are assaulted at gunpoint, a development that "Milk Money" plays for goofy laughs, as if armed robbery of children by men is an appropriate source of comedy.

But soon enough they meet "V," as poor Griffith calls herself, a Ginger Lynn clone with frizzy blond hair and enough makeup to (( caulk a basement. For cash, she shows them what they want to see; then for pity, she drives them home, accidentally taking her pimp's car, which contains the money he owes the Mafia.

Naturally, by the rules of farce, that same car breaks down, so she's forced to spend the night with Frank and his poor nerd dad (Harris), whose main goal in life is to save a few remaining acres of Pennsylvania wetlands from housing developers. Dad soon develops a crush on V, who he thinks is some kind of math tutor.

Of course, the film pretends that no pathology of prostitution exists. It cannot find time to acknowledge the possibility of AIDS or venereal diseases, of drug usage, of a history of childhood sexual abuse, of manipulation by ruthless men who administer the crudest kind of discipline, or, finally, of the pathetic bond prostitutes form with such men. It falls completely and disgustingly for the myth that prostitution is victimless crime and does not acknowledge that the true victim of prostitution is always the prostitute. To "Milk Money," prostitution is just an alternative lifestyle.

The movie instead searches for every conceivable double entendre, verbal and visual, on the theme of the prostitute passing for straight woman in the suburbs -- a kind of smarmy, lip-smacking exercise that debases fully everyone, but especially the audience. The highest stroke of tastelessness occurs when Frank, ordered to prepare an oral report on the female reproductive system (happens all the time, don't you know), sneaks V into the classroom, where she strips down to body stocking and allows him to draw her ovaries in the anatomically correct place, to the amusement of the class.

Soon enough, V's boss pimp -- Malcolm McDowell -- has come out to search for his missing money, a terrible sequence in which an armed man penetrates a grade-school dance to kill her and anybody who gets in the way -- kids, moms, dads, teachers. The city's darkest meaning: organized crime, ruthless and alien, at play in the fields of the 'burbs, yes; and it's played for laughs, of which, needless, it gets zero.

What can have possessed them? Director Richard Benjamin has made nothing great but nothing dreadful, either; Griffith and Harris are honorable performers, if a few stops shy of a first-rank career. This film is like "Springtime for Hitler," in Mel Brooks' "The Producers": a work so rancid and alienating you can only suppose it was planned as a tax loss.

"Milk Money"

Starring Melanie Griffith and Ed Harris

Directed by Richard Benjamin

Rated PG-13

Released by Paramount

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