A needy, greedy and predictably seedy community of users, abusers, gangbangers, deadbeats, pimps and prostitutes is brought to life — such as it is — in “Life Is Hot in Cracktown.” An aggressively sordid plunge into drug-ruled territory, writer-director Buddy Giovinazzo’s adaptation of his 1993 short-story collection is nowhere near as much fun as its title, playing out like an unusually obtuse episode of “The Wire.” A few high-grade performances won’t be enough to get positive word on the street for the limited release, which opens June 26 in Los Angeles.
The expletives fly faster than the bullets in this studiously grungy ensembler, which presents a series of casually overlapping vignettes set in the mean streets and squalid housing projects of Anyslum, USA (Giovinazzo’s book was set in New York). All the characters here are essentially trapped by their circumstances, though with varying degrees of denial and resignation.
Some are desperate to escape, such as hard-working Latino security guard/liquor store clerk Manny (Victor Rasuk), who’s trying to build a better life for his wife, Concetta (Shannyn Sossamon), and toddler son. Or prepubescent tyke Willy (Ridge Canipe) and his younger sister Suzie (Ariel Winter), stuck in a cockroach-infested welfare hotel while their drug-addict mom (Illeana Douglas) and her short-fuse b.f. (Edoardo Ballerini) vanish for days at a time.
Elsewhere, pre-op transsexual hooker Marybeth (Kerry Washington) is looked after with puppy-dog devotion by small-time burglar Benny (Desmond Harrington), but their relationship is complicated by Marybeth’s crack habit (sensing a pattern?). Marybeth and Benny eventually run afoul of nasty teen thug Romeo (Evan Ross) and his cronies, who exist mainly to administer a jolt of sadistic violence — gang-raping a girl in a back alley, terrorizing an elderly man in his apartment, etc. — whenever the other storylines threaten to get too listless.
While the relentless supply-and-demand of the city’s drug trade is the driving force behind almost every scene, Giovinazzo (1996’s “No Way Home”) mercifully refrains from weaving the individual threads into some sort of grandiose narrative architecture. Inevitably, the pic builds to a cross-cutting crescendo of violence, but the stories remain generally self-enclosed, not that it renders their stock scenarios any less banal.
Manny and Concetta’s arguments, aggravated by their brat’s nonstop screaming, don’t add up to more than standard-issue domestic turmoil (the appealing Rasuk is more sympathetic in his solo scenes). Street urchins Willy and Suzie, sporting too-carefully applied grime makeup, are made to elicit the viewer’s pity in much the same way their mom pimps them out to beg strangers for cash. Only Marybeth and Benny’s romance sustains interest, distinguished by its more upscale setting and the strange intensity of the lovers’ bond, borne out by committed performances from Washington and Harrington.
Persuasively shot in downtown L.A., the overcrowded pic crudely elides much of the action, leaving certain plot turns and motivations unclear, even confusing. In these moments, “Life Is Hot in Cracktown” confuses bluntness with authenticity and vagueness with realism; it doesn’t have the true grit or panoramic vision of “The Wire” or the Italian mob drama “Gomorrah” to pull off narrative sloppiness. Other thesps, including Brandon Routh and an all but unrecognizable Lara Flynn Boyle, appear too briefly to leave much of an impression.
Still, Giovinazzo is not without a sense of humor: An early shot of Manny being orally serviced by his wife is immediately followed by a shot of Benny getting similar treatment from Marybeth. In the annals of editing, it’s a cut that could go down, so to speak, as a bad-taste classic.