MacArthur Park

An ensemble piece revolving around the crack-addicted denizens of the titular L.A. locale, "MacArthur Park," Billy Wirth's feature debut, belies its arduous production history with a rare balance of concision, sympathy and brute realism. Strong reaction at Sundance could help coax audiences past the "depressing subject matter" hurdle in specialized release.

Thomas Jefferson Byrd

A large-ensemble piece revolving around the crack-addicted denizens of the titular L.A. locale, “MacArthur Park,” thesp Billy Wirth’s feature directing debut, belies its arduous five-year production history with a rare balance of concision, sympathy and brute realism. Incident-packed, potent drama is nonetheless much more a serious multicharacter study than a formula crime thriller, one that’s suspenseful without being exploitative, sobering yet far from a one-note downer. Strong reaction at Sundance and other fests could help coax audiences past the “depressing subject matter” hurdle in specialized release. Presence of rap stars in cast will probably pay off most in home-viewing markets, where wider auds are more likely to take a chance on a film that’s not quite an actioner or an arthouser, but rather an intelligent, deeply satisfying mix.

Script had its origins in co-scenarist Tyrone Atkins’ turbulent history as a playwright and casting agent who lost everything via several years’ crack addiction, homelessness and revolving-door jail stints. While autobiographical parallels abound in the central protag’s story arc, what wound up onscreen (credited to four writers) deftly grants a hefty character roster near-equal-opportunity weight, if variable face time. There’s an improv air to some scenes that heightens atmosphere, even as plotting and direction keep the pace drum-tight.

Occupying a fragile center stage is Cody (Thomas Jefferson Byrd, in a tremendous perf), a onetime jazz trumpeter, husband and father who has long since abdicated all those roles, spiraling down to his current status as just another “lost” downtown crackhead. He sleeps in a nearby shanty with fellow addicts, spending days shooting the breeze — and a lot of pipe-dream b.s. — with some of the park’s less dangerous regulars. Their petty scams include playing occasional middleman between substance-thrill-seekers slumming in the ‘hood and the no-nonsense gang of Latino dealers led by Freddie (B-Real of rap crew Cypress Hill). Any temporary windfall soon goes up in rock-cocaine smoke, despite each casualty’s boasting he can “quit anytime.”

One such lucky break occurs when an incongruous stretch limo pulls up bearing canceled-series TV action hero Steve (Balthazar Getty) and two blond hotties. Already tres party-fatigued, Steve wants a rock or three, picking Cody’s shackmate Blackie (Miguel Nunez) off a street corner as his courier. The latter delivers, at inflated cost, yet can’t stop himself from running off with the visitor’s cash-fat wallet as well. This bodes ill, as does an equally unwise theft of the Latino bruisers’ stash during a police sweep of the park.

While there may be scant honor among thieves — or addicts — the pain in Cody’s eyes suggests he’s not wholly lost his sense of decency or dignity, unlike smooth-operating pimp E-Max (Sticky Fingaz) or hopeless, mad tweaker PT (Keno K. Deary). Haunted by guilt over his abandoned family, Cody takes a fatherly interest in aspiring rapper P-Air (Bad Azz), while making empty promises to join loyal friend Karen (Rachel Hunter) on recovery road. Old wounds bleed anew when Cody is tracked down by the straight-arrow son (Brandon Adams) he hasn’t seen in years. Given the chance, he wants badly to mend their broken bond. But the unpredictable violence, time-voiding highs and general chaos of street life render all good intentions moot.

Fluidly weaving together incidents trivial and grave, “MacArthur Park” builds a sense of inevitable disaster. Wisely, Wirth’s direction — which is confident yet self-effacing, reaching for stylized bravado only to amplify the characters’ drug-fogged viewpoints — refuses to let us off the hook with “money shot” pyrotechnics, delivering all eventual carnage in brief, blunt strokes. While chain-reaction catastrophes are duly grim, pic’s terse morning-after epilogues do allow some residual hope to survive, however tenuously.

Seldom flashy in packaging (though a fine, hip-hop heavy soundtrack adds considerable verve), “MacArthur Park” is closer in spirit to social-realist ensemblers of yore like “Street Scene” than to latter-day boys-in-‘hood melodramas. A potentially cluttered scenario is offset by the location-shot production’s natural rhythms and a lack of overt agenda-pushing (one overly deliberate speech aside).

Story’s sordid-Hollywood-underside aspect is treated as just another cog in a supply-and-demand machine driven equally by economics, race, policy, crime and simple human frailty. Virtue and villainy are abstracts of little use here, with even remorseless E-Max allowed some pitiable gray-zone shading in the end.

Perfs are spot-on down the line, crowned by lead Byrd’s eloquent, heartbreaking restraint. Comedian Ellen Cleghorne nails her every scene as Hoover Blue, a tank-tough street-lifer with few illusions about her fate, yet compassionate enough to strong-arm one newbie back onto the straight-and-narrow. More flamboyant turns by Getty, Deary, Lori Petty (as a spazzed crackhead) and others add welcome gallows humor without lessening pic’s hard-truth air one bit.

Tech contribs are excellent under no doubt trying circumstances, with editor Terri Breed’s dexterous handling of numerous moods and narrative threads worth special applause. R&B sensation Macy Gray sings a rather strained take on “MacArthur Park” over closing credits — name aside, that psychedelic relic seems pretty ridiculous in this context.

MacArthur Park

  • Production: A Wirthwhile production in association with Northshire Entertainment Group. Produced by Billy Wirth, Marciel Pagulayan. Executive producers, Beata Rosenbaum, Stephen Drunsic, Robi Reed-Humes, Alan Harris. Co-executive producers, Morris Wirth, Douglas Harmon. Directed by Billy Wirth. Screenplay, Tyrone Atkins, Aaron Courseault, Sheri Sussman, Wirth, based on original characters created by Atkins.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Kristian Bernier; editor, Terri Breed; music, Stephen Perkins & Sky; production designer, Cliff Spencer; costume designer, Robin Newland; sound (Dolby Digital), Shawn Mixer; casting, Robi Reed, Cydney Felicia McCurdy, Doran Reed. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 21, 2001. Running time: 86 MIN.
  • With: <B>With:</B> Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Brandon Adams, Tami Anderson, B-Real, Bad Azz, Ellen Cleghorne, Keno Deary, Julie Delpy, David Faustino, Balthazar Getty, Rachel Hunter, Miguel Nunez, Lori Petty, Glenn Plummer, Sydney Tamia Poitier, Alexia Robinson, Sticky Fingaz, Kirk Taylor, Carlton Wilborn, Cynda Williams, Saaphyri Windsor.